The ‘Roots’ of Sepultura Within Extreme Metal Scene

Keith Harris

Keith Harris

Music’s “malleability” has always facilitated its export and import from one location to another. Indeed, such processes are central to the creation and dissemination of new musical forms. Yet in our contemporary globalised world, such processes occur ever more extensively and rapidly giving rise to new forms of appropriation and syncretism. Record companies from the developed world find new audiences in the developing world. Musicians from the West appropriate non-Western music, sometimes collaboratively. Non-Western musicians and musicians from subaltern groups within the West create new syncretic forms drawing on both Western and non-Western music. The resulting “global ecumene” produces considerable “cultural disorder” whose results cannot easily be summarised.

Yet whilst there is no privileged standpoint from which to make an overall judgement on the results of the globalisation of music, it is important to attempt to find an analytical perspective that would enable us to relate particular cases to global processes. Certain global music may produce so many knotty paradoxes that analysis may lose sight of the general picture within the complexities of the particular. In this article, I want to examine one particular paradox, that of the career of the Brazilian former death metal, now thrash metal band, Sepultura. I want to show how analysing their career through an examination of the “scene” through which they travelled allows us to appreciate the unique way in which they responded to globalisation, without losing site of the global flows of capital that structured their career.

The paradox of Sepultura’s career is that their early career, which encompasses the 1985 EP ‘Bestial Devastations’, the 1986 album ‘Morbid Visions’ and the 1987 album ‘Schizophrenia,’ took place entirely within Brazil. They toured only in Brazil, and their records were produced in Brazilian studios by Brazilians for a Brazilian record company. However, they produced music that did not attempt to musically or lyrically signify “Brazilianness” and their music was consciously modelled on non-Brazilian bands and sung in English. By the time their 1996 album ‘Roots’ had been released the situation had reversed. They were now based in Phoenix, Arizona, United States of America, recording in non-Brazilian studios for a non-Brazilian company (Roadrunner Records — an independent multinational based in the Netherlands). Yet, the album dealt lyrically with “Brazilian” themes and incorporated “Brazilian” musical styles including collaborations with the Amerindian Xavante people and the Salvadoran percussionist Carlinhos Brown.

The Extreme Metal scene emerged in the 1980s out of an interconnected musical and institutional rejection of heavy metal. Heavy metal in the 1980s has been described in detail by Deena Weinstein (1991) and Robert Walser (1993). In that decade it became one of the most successful popular music genres, dominated by a relatively small number of European and American bands. Under the influence of punk, early 1980s bands such as Venom began to develop more radicalised forms of metal. These forms, including thrash, death, black and doom metal, eschewed melody and clear singing in favour of speed, down-tuned guitars and growled or screamed vocals. Whilst each style has distinctive features and distinct networks of fans and musicians; they share enough to be frequently referred to by fans and musicians as “Extreme Metal”. The development of the scene was inseparable from these musical developments. Extreme metal began to be circulated through letter writing, tape trading, recordings on small labels and fanzines. From a very early stage, “The Underground” (as the scene was then called) was always highly decentralised. Many of its participants never met anybody from its face to face, and it was never reliant on local scenes. Moreover, bands from countries outside of the traditional Anglo-American “core” of the recording industry were influential in its development, including places as diverse as Chile, Malaysia and Israel.

The relationship of the extreme metal scene to the broader metal scene is complex. Until Metallica popularised thrash metal in the late 1980s, there was little interaction between them. The popularity of grunge and death metal in the early 1990s virtually killed off heavy metal as a popular musical form, at least in the sense that few new bands emerged playing that style. However, as the decade progressed, metal as a mass-market phenomenon was gradually reconstituted through “New Metal” bands, such as Machine Head and Korn, playing music influenced by extreme metal. There is thus some interaction between extreme metal and the wider metal scene that allows one to talk to them as part of the same overall scene, but it is a variable and often tenuous interaction. A major difference is that extreme metal is virtually invisible to non-scene members. Whereas heavy metal in the 1980s was defined by and to some extent defined itself in relation to, various “moral panics” surrounding it, particularly in the United States of America, the extreme metal scene appears to have had a kind of “insulation” from these sorts of processes.

Whilst the extreme metal scene is characterised by far greater level of decentralisation than heavy metal, local scenes have also been critical in its development. Local scenes have been particularly important in pioneering new styles that have gone on to be popular throughout the global scene. In the 1980s, the San Francisco “Bay Area” scene was crucial in the development of thrash metal (involving bands such as Exodus and Metallica). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, death metal was popularised via strong local scenes in Stockholm, Sweden (involving bands such as Dismember and Entombed) and Tampa, Florida (involving bands such as Cannibal Corpse, Obituary and Deicide). In the mid-1990s, black metal was popularised through the Norwegian scene (involving bands such as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum and Emperor).

Sepultura’s early albums, however, are not representative of a uniquely Brazilian extreme metal style. Their crude form of thrashing death metal has strong similarities to early thrash and death metal bands such as Sodom and Kreator. The fast drumming dominates everything and gives the guitar riffs an indistinct feel. The gruff vocals are treated with a lot of reverb, and brief phrases are spat out rather than sung. The lyrics, written in basic and ungrammatical English, deal with topics such as Satanism and war.

It would be easy to conclude that in their early career Sepultura simply copied more prominent extreme metal bands from elsewhere in the world. However, from a very early stage, Sepultura were not only connected to the global scene but also contributed to it. Sepultura former drummer, Igor Graziano Cavalera, reports that early recordings, including demos and live tapes, were circulated worldwide by other scene members. Indeed, rehearsal tapes from as early as 1985 are still available on tape trading lists. Sepultura should rather be seen as one of many bands from throughout the world involved in the decentralised process through which the emerging genre of death metal was created out of thrash metal.

Yet neither should we conclude that Sepultura’s location in Brazil was insignificant. Certainly, the Brazilian scene from which Sepultura emerged never popularised a particular style in the way more famous local scenes did, but it did have its own unique characteristics. For one thing, the early Brazilian scene was not only marginal to the global extreme metal scene, but the Western-style rock was at that stage in a non-hegemonic position in the country as a whole. Indeed, the scene was largely confined to São Paulo and a few other cities (Sepultura were from Belo Horizonte), and it interacted closely with the punk scene. The unique Brazilian praxis that the band helped to fashion was different from other local praxes worldwide. Moreover, writing extreme metal lyrics in English was no easy task. The language barrier was considerable, at least at first. The Portuguese names of early Brazilian bands such as Sarcófago and Holocausto (Sepultura means “grave”) testify to their greater familiarity with their native language. Early lyrics were produced from translating word for word from Portuguese. Former singer Massimiliano Antonio Cavalera’s strong accent is very noticeable. It was difficult to purchase good equipment and foreign records due to high import taxes. Brazil’s lack of prosperity was also highly significant, with the band coming from struggling lower-middle class families. The Brazilian scene, whilst having its own embryonic institutions, was thus extremely limited in scope in the early to mid-1980s, with only a few shops catering for metal and a handful of tiny record labels.

Mark Olson argues that scenes are “territorializing machines” that produce particular kinds of relationships to geographic location. Sepultura’s location in their early career was productive of and produced by a certain kind of relationship between global and local scenes. Both scenes were “quasi-autonomous” from each other in that they were dependant on each other, yet contained practices, texts, institutions and forms of capital that were unique to each. This meant that Sepultura interacted simultaneously within the Brazilian scene and the global scene.

Scenes are never static but are constantly in movement, following particular “logics of change”. By the time Sepultura released ‘Schizophrenia’ in 1987, the global and Brazilian scenes had begun to change. In Brazil, rock music was becoming more popular, partly due to the impact of the annual Rock in Rio festivals. Sepultura now had a predominant position within Brazilian metal. On the ‘Schizophrenia tour they played to at least 2,000 people every night and sold 10,000 copies of the album, which was as much as more established bands such as Slayer and Anthrax. Globally, death and thrash metal had emerged as standardised genres within a rapidly solidifying set of scenic institutions. Whereas previously the global extreme metal scene had been sustained by a few hundred people linking up isolated local scenes through communication by tape, letter and the occasional record or fanzine, more people were now involved, and there were increasing numbers of bands, record companies, fanzines and distribution services. ‘Schizophrenia’ was widely circulated within the global scene and gave the band a growing international reputation.

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