Sepultura’s Chaos A.D. is a poison-tipped volley of anti-racist and anti-colonialist sentiments, making it the perfect album to listen to right now. I used to blast Chaos A.D. while driving around my hometown in Wyoming, and it taught me more about oppression than most of my history classes in high school.
Released in 1993, the album marked a few significant transitions for Sepultura. On previous records, their lyrics often deal with bleak, post-apocalyptic worlds. Speaking with Metal Hammer, guitarist Andreas Kisser says, “Even with Arise, we were still writing lyrics that were very heavy metal, very based in fantasy. But [with Chaos A.D.] we began to get more social and political.”
Sepultura’s third album, Beneath The Remains, helped the Brazilian quartet gain international attention in 1989, but, as Kisser recalls, it wasn’t until they toured the world in support of Arise in ’91 and ’92 that he and his bandmates started to “analyze and understand what it was like being Brazilian outside of the country.” After visiting more privileged countries like the US and UK, Sepultura “saw Brazil from a different angle.” That perspective helped them realize that, instead of crafting imaginary worlds in their lyrics, they should depict and examine the social turmoil of Brazil.
With Chaos, the band also looks toward the music of their home. Sepultura’s first two records, Morbid Visions (1986) and Schizophrenia (1987), wear the influence of Show No Mercy-era Slayer on their sleeves, and Beneath The Remains (1989) and Arise attain heightened brutality by integrating the death metal attack of Obituary and Carcass. Sepultura uses even lower tunings on Chaos A.D., so it bores through the earth. The LP also finds the band putting their own spin on the musical traditions of Brazil.
Igor Cavalera might be one of the most underrated drummers in metal, but he deserves mention alongside Dave Lombardo, Vinnie Paul, and Gene Hoglan. He opens the first track, “Refuse/Resist,” with a torrent of serpentine, triplet-based tom work that the rest of Sepultura emphasizes with gargantuan chugs. In this song, as well as the rest of the album, Igor’s style is directly informed by the Batucada drumming of samba, which injects a manic and nuanced intensity into the record.
Talking with a fansite about his musical background, Igor remembers going to soccer games as a kid. He says, “They usually have a lot of drums with the crowd, each person brings a drum and they make up a samba.” As with the percussion at a Brazilian soccer game, Igor’s drumming is an energetic call to arms. In Sepultura’s case, the call is to destroy colonialist control.
Atop the grooving behemoth that is “Refuse/Resist,” singer-guitarist Max Cavalera yells, “Tanks on the streets / Confronting police / Bleeding the plebs.” The infamous Carandiru massacre—a horrific prison riot that left 111 inmates dead by the hands of São Paulo’s militaristic police force—took place a year before Sepultura recorded and released Chaos A.D., and the lyrics of “Refuse/Resist” depict that bloody event. But the track’s message is also universal. The cover of the “Refuse/Resist” single is a photograph of a South Korean student charging toward Seoul police with a Molotov cocktail in his hand, and the song applies to any military-led violence against civilians.
In the opening of “Territory,” Igor’s octo-armed Batucada drumming pushes Sepultura into a torrent of thrash before he slows the tempo with a pulverizing tom groove. While Kisser and bassist Paulo Xisto Pinto Jr. trudge through mud, Max Cavalera screams about racist politicians and the plague-like effects of hate and discrimination. Although the song’s video deals with Israeli violence against the Lebanese and Palestinians, “Territory” pertains to every situation in which a government uses xenophobia to justify cruelty. After an earthquake breakdown that will force you to smash something, Cavalera barks, “Dumb asshole’s speech… / Racist human being.”
“Slave New World” is a feral tirade about censorship that features sludgy, Pantera-style riffage, and the next track, “Amen,” speaks to the violent folly of forcing religious ideals onto other people. The latter also illustrates Sepultura’s masterful sense of dynamics as it evolves from mid-paced stomping into a quiet, hallucinatory section with eerie choral vocals and layered Brazilian drums. Cavalera and Kisser propel this part with delicate guitar notes that quickly build into a runaway train of tremolo picking. Sepultura then transitions into a riff that lands like a slab of marble that’s been tossed off the top of a skyscraper. Finally, Igor ends “Amen” with a climactic samba explosion. This is Sepultura’s “Master Of Puppets.”
The fifth song, “Kaiowas,” provides a brilliant contrast to the metallic warfare of Chaos A.D. This instrumental is a tribute to the Guarani-Kaiowá, an indigenous people of Brazil that have been repeatedly forced off their own land, and “Kaiowas” utilizes traditional Brazilian folk to embody that idea. Igor and Paulo Jr., who plays additional percussion on this track, begin the song with trance-inducing rolls that intensify Cavalera and Kisser’s delicate acoustic work. In true Batucada style, Paulo Jr. and Igor emphasize the downbeat throughout “Kaiowas,” making it the pulsing heart of the track. Kisser and Cavalera’s guitar progressions have a vivid narrative quality before the song breaks down into a tribal protest jam. Igor and Paulo Jr. play another rhythm with its own gravitational pull, and Kisser’s guitar harmonies dance through the air. “Kaiowas” is quite possibly the heaviest acoustic song I’ve ever heard, and, since it’s on a Sepultura album, it works as an argument that all musical backgrounds are welcome and valid in metal.
And then Sepultura unleashes the post-colonial shark’s mouth that is “Propaganda.” The track opens with abrasive high notes that the band promptly destroys with a stampeding groove. Delving into ideas that perfectly apply to our current political climate, Cavalera roars “Why don’t you realize that you’re fucked up / Why criticize what you don’t understand / …you’re so afraid.” Afterward, Sepultura devolves into a breakdown that’s the sonic equivalent to a medieval battering ram. As with “Territory,” this track alludes to how racism becomes a form of self-imposed alienation for its practitioners when Cavalera shouts, “Life teaches me you’re always alone.”
While the music of “Nomad” is abusive and militaristic, its lyrics speak to the cultural erasure that occurs when groups of people are forced to leave their homeland. Following this metal behemoth, “We Who Are Not As Others” is a swinging dirge with tom-driven interludes. Cavalera and Kisser douse the second bridge with poisonous sludge before Sepultura returns to the opening riff, which, this time around, is fueled by Cavalera’s repetitive screaming of the song’s title—a lyric that captures the all-consuming struggle of living on society’s margins.
Instead of Cavalera’s unmistakable roars, “Manifest” showcases a radio-style depiction of the Carandiru Massacre with accompanying commentary about the senselessness of the violence, and how the police of São Paolo have become power-obsessed and out of control. The instrumentation reflects this brutal subject matter by beginning with punishing, Neurosis-esque drumming and following that with frenzied D-beat. Like Chaos as a whole, “Manifest” exhibits Sepultura’s astute combination of hardcore’s social commentary with the lizard brain appeal of metal.
The original version of Chaos A.D. closes with “Clenched Fist.” Beginning with a noxious cloud of industrial noise, this cut is defined by angular breakdowns and lyrics about personal strength in the face of social strife. The 1996 reissue additionally features a pseudo-house reinterpretation of “Refuse/Resist” that was used on the Mortal Kombat: More Kombat videogame soundtrack, and a stunningly raw and down-to-earth version of “Kaiowas.”
Many thrash purists see Chaos A.D. as the record that led Sepultura into the mediocre land of nü-metal, but thanks to the way it embraces Brazil on both musical and political levels, this album stands as Sepultura’s magnum opus. Like “War Pigs,” the social messages of Chaos A.D. are timeless and universal, making it one of the most important metal albums ever recorded.
J.J. Anselmi is tuning low on Twitter.