Sepultura – Quadra (2020)REVIEW

From about 1992 until 2001 or so you could’ve torn my fingernails out, waterboarded me, etc. and no manner of torture would change the truth that my favorite band was Sepultura. Discovering the cassette single for “Dead Embryonic Cells” in my older brother’s record collection and soon marveling at nearby copies of ‘Arise’, ‘Beneath the Remains’, and even ‘Chaos A.D.’ would serve as a particularly inspirational gateway to the underground niches of thrash and death metal as well as link worlds for me, with their covers of some of my favorite groups (New Model Army, Bad Brains etc.) at the time. There is no mystery as to what changed for the band in the late 90’s, they’d become a figurehead for groove metal and influence many with their unique rhythms before conflict and resultant staff changes lead to major stylistic divergence and the new Sepultura would cease resembling their ‘old school’ thrash and 80’s death metal roots for good. ‘Against’ (1998) was the first promotional CD for review I ever received while reviewing for a punk magazine at the time. I was a ‘new vocalist’ apologist from the moment I heard it, in fact I’d still prefer it to anything else Sepultura released after 1998 and until 2011 or so. Back then, when ‘Against’ and ‘Nation’ were challenging the long established fandom and dividing them down the middle, I was thrilled by what vocalist Derrick Green brought, not necessarily the hardcorish yelp of his but the Bad Brains-esque range that I knew was capable of, as I was fully aware of his prior work in Outface. While the rest of my teenaged heavy metal enthusiast friends pined over the loss of their death/thrash god’s groove/nu-metal dissolution I’d held some hope for the weird ‘Quickness’ style freakery to kick in. With the hindsight of two decades since, watching fans coil up in preparation for a ‘comeback’ Sepultura record over and over, there are several lessons learned from my own youthful fandom, nostalgia, and any residual instinctual yearning to tell any artist what to do: Fuck off with it, and move on.

For a legacy groove metal band that was initially unwilling to stray far from the sluggish, down-tuned power chord chunking style of music that they’d help popularize, the Steamhammer Records years (2002-2009) from Sepultura were remarkably experimental as they pushed their too-polished and claustrophobic sound into the expanse of concept albums. Political defiance, classic literature applied to the present, and even some of their own narrative ideas would help to create a niche brand of occasionally tuneful groove metal all their own. It was a new identity for the band. I didn’t like it, hell I’d end up giving away ‘Roorback’ (2003) to a friend and remember them return it to me the next day shaking their head… It’d seem the band would move towards the nostalgia angle once they’d seen the overwhelming response to the prospect of ‘Arise’ anniversaries and such, many of their peers had great success with nostalgia tours and no doubt some of that hoopla would end up informing ‘Kairos’ (2011). It certainly wasn’t a thrash metal record and it didn’t reach as far into their own original ‘progressive groove’ realm as much as the prior record but it appeared that Nuclear Blast was a better home for Sepultura. Each album since appears to aim for a balance of their own staggered progressive metal grandeur and some service to feint thrash metal roots, which fans cannot stop demanding. Some view this progression as a triumph, a way for fans to get what they want out of a band while they continue to do what they want, but I would suggest they didn’t always know what direction to go in. Dismiss my perception of things if you will, I often do, but I do not want the Sepultura that other people expect and I appreciate the band’s most strange moments the most, past and present. I’ve nostalgia for records that were bigger, less predictable in the late 80’s and early 90’s and there is no sense asking this entirely self-evolved band to forcibly regress. No doubt there is some slight nostalgia value within ‘Quadra’, but not at all for the pre-‘Roots’ era of their discography. As a peacekeeper, a record themed around spheres of life and influence and concerned with our place in the world, this fifteenth Sepultura album finds the band assured of what they mean to others, and often unsure of the path forward.

The myths of the hopeful and nostalgic fandom are all constructs to paint the childish  picture they’d wanted to see for years. Why do I say this? I did it for years. Reprisals of old themes, the return of ‘old school’ thrash metal riffs, and the notion that ‘Quadra’ reprises every bit of Sepultura‘s past are all complete nonsense. A progression away from the ‘tribal’ rhythms of former drummer and founding member Igor Cavalera (Cavalera Conspiracy) has continued to revitalize their output beyond ‘A-Lex’ (2009) and though Sepultura have increased the general beats-per-minute of each tracklist since, ‘Quadra’ is yet a natural step within an already established progression, not the 80’s or 90’s. You could say you hear a bit of the band’s past on any of their recent records and it seems the collective hype of something “new and faster-than-ever” unfortunately erases the pretty recent successes of ‘Machine Messiah‘ in fan’s minds, despite releasing just a few years ago. Hardcore punk, thrash metal, acoustic passages, progressive metal, ‘tribal rhythms’, and even alternative metal songwriting… it should be plainly stated that the previous Sepultura album was not so wildly different, perhaps more grandiose and even more cumulative and “full range” than ‘Quadra’ is. So, when I said “Fuck off with it, and move on.” I didn’t necessarily mean to diffuse all nostalgia but to suggest that even when a fandom gets exactly what they want, they may never see the forest for the trees.

What about me? I’ll go as far as to suggest that I liked ‘Machine Messiah’ back in 2017. It has the closest thing to thrash metal riffing one can get from a band that has hardly looked that far back since the late 90’s. Likewise, I am not here to suggest that ‘Quadra’ is a bad album, and most of my tirade centers around what the album was said to be and what it actually is. They’ve not served a throwback thrasher, they’ve not simply spun through the last thirty years of stylistic changes, but they have intentionally reflected upon the past. There is the sense that this is a point of teaching rather than learning, that ‘Quadra’ is a status report from the band who’d spent years learning all manner of things and their last 2-3 records in particular have aimed to embody not plain nostalgia and reference but knowledge gained from experience as a unit. The ‘point’ is not the past and though it may appear driven by nostalgia I’d never mistake ‘Quadra’ for anything other than a modern groove metal record. No matter where they came from, what they did in the past, this is were the band are at today and as a very lapsed fan who always checks out their new material it was nice to see this wasn’t actually the pandering ‘return to form’ folks said it was.

“Did it need to be nearly an hour long?” Déjà vu, right? I’ve asked this of every Sepultura album since 2001 (excepting ‘Dante XXI’) and yet this remains an inexcusable gripe. If the vocals only slightly vary, if the atmospheric and experimental tracks don’t necessarily pay off or add anything to the full listen why not ‘trim the fat’ for the greater good? Of course every artist and handler(s) have their reasons, I totally get why there are three 4 minute speedy half-thrash songs kicking off the first half of ‘Quadra’ as it fits the planned messaging for the record and provides an appreciable first impression: Energy is up! Without question this record would kick on and I could sit back and appreciate how hard they were going. Despite this, each song after the next begins to chip deeper away at my interest. “Means to an End” feels like an approximation of the ‘Nation’-era sans experimentation, but it is “Last Time” that confuses me most. Objectively speaking this is a fine groove metal song, if it were written for a band like Exhorder folks would still be buzzing about it today and for Sepultura this song is a solid case made for the moments where they do step outside of their well-defined box. Despite this the main strength of the song (the clever riff that defines the first half) only feeds the main reason I’d lapsed on the bands output twenty years ago, groove metal is absolutely boring, sped up or slowed down. That’d be the energetic peak of the album, though.

I’m not deluded, at least in the sense that I understand that this is the fifteenth record from a world famous metal band. So, I can’t fault the more accessible tracks here including the odd Strapping Young Lad feeling of “Agony of Defeat” and “Raging Void”, both of which felt out of place with the tone set on the first several songs. “Guardians of Earth” is awkward for the same reason, a progressive metal song followed by perhaps the last ‘thrasher’ on the record, the largely instrumental “The Pentagram” which pulls in some impressive speed and extra intricacy to the second half of the album. I’d long known that Sepultura had evolved in a direction that wasn’t for my own taste and though ‘Machine Messiah’ distracted me from that fact, it becomes obvious once again as ‘Quadra’ moves from faster groove metal tracks towards those somewhat elaborate “prog” metal numbers. If the intention is to illustrate the changes made since 1998 in the span of 12 songs then I suppose it does read that way with some explanation provided; It is a worthy enough idea and if it makes for a more personal record that represents the whole band somehow, great. Front-loading an album with high energy, and leaving all of the pomp pushed towards the end makes for a poor listening experience that drags and that’d end up being a nigh fatal flaw for my own taste.

In this case an intentionally cumulative look at Sepultura‘s larger career goes too far with its emphasis on characteristics that I do not enjoy as a listener. In other words, the wisdom of the last two decades that the band have to share does not resonate with me because all roads lead to progressive groove metal, a philosophical antithesis to what had drawn me to the band when I was younger. There is no torturous battle here, though, I do not view any band as a ‘master’ that I must follow blindly. Like many others I do owe a gratitude to the one or two remaining members who’d had something to do with the pre-’93 era of the band but… we’ve naturally aged apart. I respect that Sepultura have worked for decades to find a comfortable and distinguished musical direction, on the other hand I don’t find the reflective wisdom of ‘Quadra’ tends towards anything more than their legacy and certainly doesn’t find a new and exciting direction for their sound. I can’t particularly fault the fine production and rendering from Jens Bogren and Fascination Street Studios as it might feature some artificial sheen but that’d be characteristic of Sepultura‘s legacy all the same.

So why prattle on about an average album from a band who’ve not been of my own taste for a few decades? Normally I wouldn’t and I tend to only share music I’d recommend with others but in this case the urge to set a popular and long-standing band into a box by way of my own nostalgia is an urge worth fighting and killing off. I don’t care if ‘Quadra’ doesn’t sound like ‘Beneath the Remains’, it can be approached on its own merits and still manage at least 2-3 tracks that all but the most stuck up or ‘lost in their niche’ fandom could enjoy. In the moment and on record Sepultura still have a certain charismatic value no matter where they take their core 90’s metal punch and I can appreciate that they’re still a ‘hard’ band with big ideas. “The Pentagram”, “Isolation” and even “Last Time” do a good enough job showcasing where guitarist Kisser and drummer Casagrande line-up in terms of sustained identity and new extremes and the better they get at working together the better the future of this long-running band looks. Still, not something I would recommend for more than the one or two listens of depth it offers and with the suggestion that several of these songs are insufferable. A very moderate recommendation.

Sepultura - Quadra - Artwork

Artist Sepultura
Type Full-length
Released February 7, 2020
BUY on Nuclear Blast’s Website LISTEN to ‘Quadra’ on Spotify
Genre Groove Metal,
Progressive Metal

Moderate recommendation. 2.75/5.0

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