Author's note: Welcome to our second installment of Graves of the 80s, dedicated to exploring the best death metal, black metal and grindcore from that formative decade. This edition is focused on Sepultura's first two releases. You can check out the first installment of Graves of the 80s here, focused on Possessed's Seven Chruches.
Background: Stumbling Into Devastation
Sepultura's first two official recordings, 1985's Bestial Devastation (their half of the split with Overdose) and 1986's Morbid Visions are emblematic of the environment of the mid-1980s metal underground. These two pillars of extremity would become essential listening to fans in their home country of Brazil, remaining relatively obscure outside of the tape-trading world until Roadrunner reissued them in 1991. They embody the fresh, free spirit of extreme metal in its early days. As you listen, you get the feeling the band was just making it all up as they went along, just to see if it worked. In the process, they stumbled on blackened death metal greatness.
And it's fitting that my own experience with it was very much a stumble-on kind of situation. Back in the summer of 2006, I was visiting someone in Springfield, Illinois, and found some time to hit up a local music store. They had a tower of used metal CDs on sale for super cheap. I don't think some of the younger readers understand how precious these goldmines were, as everything is so readily findable now. In the mid-2000s it was definitely becoming easier, but you didn't just have immediate access to the most obscure demos and necro-releases like you do now.
At the time, my familiarity with Sepultura was limited to Chaos A.D., the hits from Roots and a quick listen to Arise many years earlier — when I wasn't ready for it. In this tower of wonders I found Beneath the Remains. I hadn't heard this album yet, but the cover looked pretty cool, so I figured why not. Yes, why not buy the band's best album on a lark? But I also saw this other CD. The logo was different! And check out the band photo… those bullet belts! And does the original copyright date say… 1985 and 1986? Had to get it. Oh, I also got Enthrone Darkness Triumphant that day. It was a good haul!
The 1991 reissue contains valuable and informative liner notes written by Don Kaye — longtime journalist for Kerrang! and other outlets — who became of the band's earliest acolytes. He begins with the basics:
"Max and Igor Cavalera were teenagers when they formed Sepultura, inspired by the sounds of hardcore and speed metal that were filtering down to Brazil through bootleg tapes and albums. Influenced by the likes of Celtic Frost, Slayer, and Venom, among others, the brothers rounded out their combo with bassist Paulo Jr. and lead guitarist Jairo T."
Readers will notice Andreas Kisser's absence from this early lineup. Indeed, the guitarist would join for the recording of Schizophrenia, marking the band's significant stylistic and lyrical shift. More about that later.
Back to the liner notes, Kaye notes the difficult-to-hostile environment Sepultura faced in Brazil at their beginnings. The country had only just emerged from the military dictatorship in March of 1985, and was still hampered by "repression, poverty, and corruption." To narrow the aperture to the country's music scene, Sepultura started out with "nowhere to play, no one to support them, and not a single record company that would touch them."
But the band and like-minded metal maniacs forged ahead and practically poured the foundations of Brazilian extreme metal themselves. And this is reflected in the band's methods for recording Morbid Visions. According to Max: "We only realized much later, maybe a year later, that we simply forgot to tune the guitars every day. We just recorded the way the guitars were set in the studio–we didn't even have a tuner." This seat-of-your-studded-pants approach is evident in the album's blasphemous lyrics as well. Max goes on to say that "We couldn't really speak much English, so all the lyrics are pretty much taken word by word from a dictionary I used to have."
Honestly, this adds to the virtues of both releases, as plenty of musicians with perfectly professional recording techniques and a mastery of upper-middle-class English can barely match these records. I mean, you can't really get "analysis paralysis" if you don't bother analyzing in the first place. Just go for it, see what happens!
By the time the band had released these works, they'd helped to build a mighty scene in their home city of Belo Horizonte. In an interview for Decibel for its Hall of Fame article about Schizophrenia, Max commented on the state of their local scene when the band recorded Bestial Devastation and Morbid Visions:
"At the time the scene was super-cool and happening. It was kind of like the death metal scene in Florida. You had all these cool bands—Mutilator, Sarcófago, Holocausto, Chakal and us—all from the same scene, and it was cool to be part of something bigger than yourself. We thought the Belo Horizonte scene was cooler than the São Paulo scene and the Rio scene. We were super stoked because our little city had a cooler metal scene than the rest of Brazil."
And he's not talking bluster there, as you can hear from the music itself.
The Music: Death Metal By Accident
Ok, so neither release is pure death metal, as each contains shadows of black metal and signs of the band's thrashing destiny. But both releases have the trappings of blackened death metal, with Bestial leaning slightly more in the black direction and Morbid sitting somewhat more in the death metal realm. This places the band's early work comfortably in league with Possessed's Seven Churches and Morbid Angel's Abominations of Desolation as flames of the dawning fires. It's all the same mood and energy going on here.
Let's start with a close listen to Bestial. One fun fact about the spoken opener, "The Curse," is that it was performed by one of the band's friends without using any effects. Impressive! This is made all the more hilarious by the fact they don't remember who the friend is, at least according to Iggor.
The title track bears clear similarities to early Morbid Angel, while predating any of that band's demo work by a solid year (the Bleed For the Devil demo tape came out in May of 1986). The song is a swirling twister of riffs, tom rolls, and throaty harsh vocals. For a band of teenagers working on their first release, there is an impressive display of sophistication in how they compiled the song's various parts. Each moment is memorable and flows very naturally to the next.
Next up is the most black metal song, "Antichrist," featuring perhaps one of the first blast-beats used in metal, which undergirds some very Possessed-style riff work. But the band doesn't just stick to this pattern, pulling the rug from under the listener with the mosh-pit beatdown starting at 1:45. The re-recording of their 1984 demo song, "Necromancer" has strong black metal vibes as well, channeling a distinct spirit of evil from the reverb-soaked vocal delivery. "Warriors of Death" is probably the most "thrash" song on the EP, recalling the early work of German bands like Sodom and Destruction.
The overall sound of the EP is crude, but effective. The guitars have a raw and crunchy quality, but everything is very clear and crisp. This may be a result of the remastering done on the reissue, but this just shows the quality of the source material. I'm not sure I'd want these songs recast in the production sound of Chaos A.D., as their "necro" sound here gives them their character. Something would be lost behind all of that compression.
Speaking of albums with "character," let's talk about Morbid Visions. As many reviewers and commentators have noted, Morbid Visions does in fact have a worse production sound than Bestial Devastation. The tinny guitars sound like an attempt to capture Sodom's guitar tone that went a little off the rails. But if you can see past this (hear past it?) and immerse yourself in the album's hellish atmosphere, there's a lot to enjoy here.
A proper listen to the album reveals a trove of precious riffs. Check out the 2-minute mark on the title track, the distorted bass interlude at 2:30 on "Troops of Doom," and the main riff on "Funeral Rites." When people say metal "gets into your blood," this is what they're talking about. That said, the real star of the album is Iggor Cavalera's drum work, particularly the snare sound. The album shows a real progression in his abilities, aside from the one odd slowdown on the title track. I also have to mention the moment at 1:37 on "Empire of the Damned." I can't help but swoon at a band that uses the double-kick and ride symbol combination like that, it's the perfect drum beat (for me, that is).
Listeners looking for the explicit death metal should crank up "Crucifixion." The song makes me think the band conducted a seance and manifested the 1990-lineup of Decide for guidance. And honestly, the band shouldn't be too hard on itself as non-native English speakers, as the lyrics aren't that far off from the standard fare of American and British demon-worshippers:
Forgotten by our mind forever
He's left the churches to torment us
We'll destroy the high altar
Until we see the ashes of pain
On both Bestial and Morbid, Max Cavalera's barks out his vocals in pitch-free combination of Cronos and Tom Araya that reaches out to extreme metal's future. He hones his delivery a bit on Morbid and foreshadows his later vocal style, as it has more punch and determination here. Still, the reverb gives it a distinctly underground feeling that tells you what epoch you're dealing with.
The lyrics on both records show the band's unholy inheritance from Venom and Slayer, focusing primarily on Satanism and the occult. While many commentators are eager to declare this subject matter old and tired in 2023, it definitely helped inspire a lot of brutal music in the mid-1980s. Therefore, the jaded listener should keep this in mind and try to approach it with some perspective. Pretend you know nothing, drop the attitude, and let the evil flow through you.
Artistic Legacy: Glorious Empire… of the Damned
Stylistically, the Cavalera brothers have never stayed in one mode of expression for too long. They usually stick with a theme for two or three albums and then move on. Beneath the Remains and Arise make a natural pair of thrash metal at its absolute finest. The first two Soulfly albums play very nicely together, as do Dark Ages and Conquer. And so it was after Morbid Visions, especially with the departure of Jairo and his replacement with Andreas Kisser.
As Iggor Cavalera says in the Hall of Fame article mentioned earlier: "when Andreas came in, he brought the right connection between black and death metal and thrash. I think he's responsible for bringing a lot of the thrash metal influence to Schizophrenia in the guitar riffs and the leads, and it makes that album a bit more of a thrash album."
Max also mentions that Sepultura "became a more mature band, and you could see that the band was developing and growing. I think we opened up to more ideas. The riffs became more complicated and intricate … There were black, death and thrash metal elements, and we started doing things outside the box."
And this is a good thing. Bestial and Morbid stand on their own as blackened-death metal masterworks that legions of bullet-belted bands now worship. And while a lot of these bands make some fantastic noise, there's nothing quite like the original innovation captured on these records. Max is often a little too harsh when speaking about Morbid Visions, claiming that "Troops of Doom" is the only worthwhile output from those days. Or at least that's how he put it in the reissue liner notes. But I get what he means, as he knew the band had to grow and move forward. The world needed to hear the next chapter in the Sepultura story, told under a pale gray sky.
About This Series
This series is dedicated to extreme metal's early development in the 1980s, and focuses on some of the key albums from that decade. While death metal, black metal, grindcore and their various combinations and offshoots would gain notoriety, prominence, and (some) commercial success in the 1990s and beyond, there's something uniquely fascinating about the early years. It was an age of volcanic creativity in which the core essence of various styles came together, developed and then became distinct. Back in 2015, I talked about the "1985 sound" that comprised a mix of bands that contributed to extreme metal and others that would give it a recognizable shape. For the sake of simplicity, I'll be dedicating this series to the latter. I want to focus on music that brought about new forms of heavy metal expression and go beyond the inane analysis of "It broke new ground!"