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23 Years Ago, Sepultura Unearthed the Tribal and Relentlessly Heavy Roots

on February 22, 2019, 2:49pm

A number of rock and metal bands have remained true to their original sound and direction throughout their entire careers (AC/DC, Motörhead, Ramones), while others branched out over the course of several albums. Sepultura certainly belong in the latter category — especially with their groundbreaking 1996 offering, Roots.

Hailing from Brazil, Sepultura (which is a Portuguese word for “burial”) started off as a black metal/death metal band — especially on such early offerings as 1985’s Bestial Devastation and 1986’s Morbid Visions. But after solidifying what is now largely considered their classic lineup — Max Cavalera (vocals/guitar), Andreas Kisser (guitar), Paulo Jr. (bass), and Igor Cavalera (drums/percussion) — Sepultura soon began reaching outside their earlier one-dimensional direction.

By the time of 1991’s Arise, and especially, their major label debut, 1993’s Chaos AD, Sepultura had begun increasingly embracing their native culture — especially evidenced in some of their lyrics, and also, the percussive work of Igor. But it was not until Roots, that it all crystallized, into one of the most original — and heavy — metal releases of the entire decade.

And the arrival of the album couldn’t have come at a better time in the world of heavy metal. Thinking back to the mid ‘90s when the album emerged, metal’s popularity was probably at an all-time low — MTV and radio was seemingly obsessed with grunge, punk, and alt-rock, some of metal’s biggest names were going through rough periods with replacement singers (Priest, Maiden, Crüe, Anthrax), while some lost the plot for a while (namely Metallica and Megadeth).

In the book Survival of the Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990s, Max looked back on the album’s creation, and what set it apart from the rest of the pack. “What’s cool about Roots was we took a chance to do something different. We were coming from Chaos AD, that was really different from Arise, and the band just kept going further. Really not afraid to change and to do different stuff.”

“I found the concept of going back to our own roots of Brazil,” he continued. “The more time I spent outside Brazil, the more I grow fond of Brazil/roots stuff. Brazil is a land really rich in art, and I thought recording with the Indians would be the coolest way to show the real roots of Brazil, because they were there before the samba, before the blacks, there were the Indians — the original people of Brazil. So that’s where the idea of Roots came from and recording with the Xavantes. The whole experience gave birth to the album cover, to the pictures, to the idea of the songs — it became a whole thing evolving in the visit to the tribe. It became part of the enigma of that record.”

In addition to injecting elements of their native culture into their sound, it’s hard not to immediately be taken by the overall heaviness of the record from a sonic standpoint, courtesy of producer Ross Robinson and mixer Andy Wallace. And Max recalled that this was done on purpose — and inspired by a specific band. “We tuned really low for that record. We recorded where Korn recorded [Indigo Ranch in Malibu, California], and we kind of ‘borrowed’ the Korn tuning for the record and put it in our music. It’s very different from Korn. And it works really good.

“When I think of songs like ‘Roots Bloody Roots,’ ‘Attitude,’ ‘Cut-Throat,’ they’re heavy as shit, because they’re so low,” Max added. “But it’s a great groove — it’s a powerful, big groove behind those songs. It was a fun record. We had Mike Patton, Jon [Davis] from Korn on ‘Lookaway.’ We had Carlinhos Brown on ‘Ratamahatta,’ a Brazilian artist. A lot of percussion. We did percussion in the valley by the studio. It was a really great album to make, had a lot of fun making it. It’s one of my favorite records I’ve ever done.”

Released in late February 1996 in Europe, and a few weeks later in the United States, Roots quickly became Sepultura’s most successful album — peaking at #27 on the Billboard 200 and eventually obtaining gold certification (and impressively, becoming a Top 5 album in Australia, Austria, France, and Sweden, and Top 10 in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands). But just as global mega-success seemed to be a slam-dunk for Sepultura, Max exited the band (allegedly over a disagreement concerning management) and formed Soulfly, while the remainder of the band carried on with singer Derrick Green.

Despite Roots being over two decades old by this point, it remains as ferocious as ever, and continues to inspire others, including Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who told Mojo magazine in 2017, “Roots came out, produced by Ross Robinson and mixed by Andy Wallace: sonically the most powerful album I had ever heard. Made everything else sound like a flea fart. That record became the gauge for every studio album Foo Fighters did for ten years. ‘That sounds pretty good, but see how it stands up to that Sepultura record…’ There’s no way we ever got anywhere close. But it gave you perspective — this is heavy. What you’re doing? It’s okay, but this is heavy.”

Sepultura’s Roots is available on vinyl and other formats via Reverb LP.

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