As the Cavalera brothers embark on a tour for the thirtieth anniversary of Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains album, Getintothis’ Nedim Hassan talks to Max Cavalera about its enduring significance.
By 1989 the bar for thrash metal had already been set stupendously high.
In 1988 alone the ‘big four’ American thrash bands had released classic albums that cemented their status as major international acts.
Slayer’s South of Heaven featured slower, menacing songs that still displayed their immense talent for gargantuan riff writing.
Metallica’s …And Justice for All continued their imperious streak of song-writing and boasted the epic One.
Megadeth’s So Far, So Good…So What! was a dark sounding record that contained the seminal In My Darkest Hour.
Anthrax’s often underrated State of Euphoria, although not quite capturing the heights of breakthrough, Among the Living, still gave us future live staple Antisocial.
All the while, there were a host of other US-based and European thrash acts snapping at their heels; from Exodus and Testament to German heavyweights like Kreator and Sodom, those were halcyon days for the sub-genre.
Then, into the fray stepped a little known band from Brazil who were about to embark on a remarkable creative period that would expand thrash metal and death metal’s horizons.
Much has been made of Sepultura’s material from the early to mid-nineties when they produced celebrated albums such as Chaos AD (1993) and Roots (1996) that combined elements of death and thrash metal with an increased interest in Brazilian instrumentation and lyrical themes influenced by Brazilian politics.
Yet, it was 1989’s Beneath the Remains that started this trajectory by propelling the band onto the international stage.
This pivotal third album delivered on the promise of early albums Morbid Visions (1986) and Schizophrenia (1987) and provided a sound so savage that it was genuinely jolting for fans of thrash and death metal at the time.
This writer was at high school at the time and was a devoted Slayer and Megadeth fan. The first time the video for the track Inner Self was featured on ITV’s late night heavy metal videos show, The Power Hour (which became Raw Power in 1990), was a shock to the system.
The sound was unique for the period – how could something be so raw and uncompromisingly aggressive, yet also clean enough to be instantly memorable?
Thirty years on, when we caught up with former Sepultura vocalist Max Cavalera it was clear that the sound of the album was something that he is still proud of and he recognises how it was a vital release for the band.
As Max said: “I really like the raw vibe of the record. It opened a lot of doors for us, since it was our first worldwide release. I think it still sounds good today.”
One of the key dimensions in this success was the contribution of the album’s producer, Scott Burns.
Burns built his reputation as an engineer at Morrisound studios in Tampa, Florida. These recording studios and Burns’ production would go on to be integral to the development of death metal in the US and beyond.
However, in 1989 Burns was new to the role of producer, although he had been engineer on Death’s influential sophomore album, Leprosy, in 1988.
Indeed, as Burns recounts in Albert Mudrian’s book Choosing Death, one of the reasons that Roadracer (soon to be become known as Roadrunner) records gave him the job as producer for Beneath the Remains, was that he was the only one willing to travel to Brazil to work with the band.
Despite it being Scott Burns’ first ever production assignment, Max Cavalera affirmed to us the pivotal role that he played in the band’s career: “It was exciting to work with a real producer for the first time. Scott Burns specialized in that kind of music and taught us many things. He helped me with lyrics, vocals and scheduling.”
Max also recalled how the production process was gruelling as the band had to record “at night because that’s when the studio was available.”
Working through the night in a Rio-based studio during the summer and then trying to sleep during the day in temperatures pushing 100 degrees was a punishing task for the band and the producer.
Despite such challenges, the resulting record is a masterclass in ferocity. The brutal title track and album opener sets the tone for what is to follow.
In a similar vein to Metallica’s Battery, gentle and flowing clean guitar melodies suddenly give way to a furious, uncompromising rhythmic assault as machine gun drumming comes to the fore.
Yet, like many other songs on the album, Beneath the Remains is a track that judiciously uses pace; with slower chugging guitar hooks and shrill tortured soloing providing sufficient contrast to the frenzied death metal infused tempo.
If the opening track is, in some respects, the equivalent of blunt force trauma, then the aforementioned Inner Self inflicts its damage with slower, iconic riffs that have an almost hypnotic quality.
Quite simply this track is one of the greatest thrash metal songs of all time.
Its affective power comes initially from its timbre, which can be described as similar to the sound of static. It has a primal quality that evokes the sound of thrash contemporaries Sadus on their seminal Chemical Exposure album.
Inner Self takes this raw sound quality but transforms it into something more immersive and mesmerizing. This is due to the way that the juddering, jarring riffs burrow their way into the listener’s consciousness, with a somewhat hollowed and echoing effect that conjures a sense of mental descent.
This effect is enhanced by a disorienting bridge section in which Max Cavalera’s gruff vocals are also echo-laden, before a spine tingling guitar solo from Andreas Kisser that equals anything Kirk Hammett musters on Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
The album’s ability to keep on delivering memorable riffs and a crushing sound that sits somewhere between thrash and death metal is, even thirty years on, still impressive.
The A side in particular is virtually flawless with the one-two punch of Stronger than Hate and Mass Hypnosis rounding things off and leaving the listener with little choice but to bang their heads and turn their air guitars up to eleven.
The latter track, with its distinctive high pitched guitar hooks, which evoke a sped up version of the Psycho shower sequence film music, is another iconic moment.
Like many songs on the album, the lyrics, which allude to the dangers of propaganda (“Hate through the arteries – mass hypnosis”), are compelling and offer glimpses of the political edge that has since characterized much of Sepultura’s and Max Cavalera’s work in recent releases from Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.
While not quite matching the immediacy of the A side, the B side still features some metallic gems and deep cuts.
Sharing common ground with Stronger than Hate, Slaves of Pain has a higher pitched introductory riff that is somewhere near to Metallica’s Seek and Destroy, yet it quickly morphs into something altogether more frenzied and Slayer-like.
When the pace drops for the chorus its arrival is heralded by another disorienting use of echo effects, which add to the horror of the lyrics “Life Ends/ Feeling Death/ Slaves of Pain.”
Primitive Future is an ideal way to close an album of such intensity. Beginning in as uncompromising a manner as the first track, it builds to a chorus that provides us with the most affirmative (albeit bleak) chant on the album.
Although Beneath the Remains is often compared unfavourably to its more prestigious successors – Arise (1991), Chaos AD (1993) and Roots (1996) – its primal sound, the sheer quality of song-writing, abundance of absorbing riffs, propulsive use of rhythm and bleak apocalyptic vocals ensure it remains as vital as it did back in 1989.
Its thirtieth anniversary deserves to be celebrated and it is fitting that Max and Iggor Cavalera are doing just that with their imminent Return Beneath Arise tour, which hits UK shores this week.
With a set-list garnered from both Beneath the Remains and its colossal follow-up Arise, this is an event that provides a rare chance for fans to relive this classic era in metal history.
When asked about what we can expect from the shows, Max only served to whet our appetite further: “It’s a powerhouse show!! It brings the fans back to that time and gives the new generation a chance to be a part of it.”
The Return Beneath Arise tour starts tonight in London’s 02 Forum Kentish Town and concludes with a date at the 02 Ritz in Manchester on 17 December.
We’ll see you in the pit.
Full tour dates:
December 11 – O2 Kentish Town Forum, London
December 12 – O2 Academy 2, Birmingham
December 14 – Northumbria Institute, Newcastle
December 15 – QMU, Glasgow
December 16 – Leadmill, Sheffield
December 17 – O2 Ritz, Manchester