Class is back in sessions, students of the riff. For this lesson, we will be examining some riffs from the Sepultura classic “Dead Embryonic Cells,” from 1991’s Arise.
Arise might be the last great thrash album from the sub-genre’s initial surge to prominence. Death metal was ascendant in 1991, and thrash was on the wane, but Arise made sure thrash went out with a roar. Being a late-period thrash album, Arise owes a lot to the Reign in Blood blueprint for the style: extremely fast, atonal, chaotic, and rhythmically focused. We can hear evidence of this in the intro.
“Dead Embryonic Cells” comes out of the gate at 210 beats per minute, a blistering pace by any standard. The whole passage uses only four power chords: E5, F5, A5 and B♭5. In the song’s relative key of E-minor, F5 is the minor second and B♭5 is our old pal the diminished fifth. These are two of the most evil sounding intervals in music, and so, with two of four chords out of key, the intro has atonality covered very well. The riffs in the intro are relatively simple—pedal tone-based thrash riffs, but the arrangement is quirky. In the roughly twenty intro seconds, three distinct themes are established, but none of them lasts for more than a few repeats, and there are odd transitions, such as a random measure of 6/4 time and some abrupt stops and starts.
The intro riffs—being, for the most part, heavily palm-muted and composed of less than a handful of power chords—lack strong melodic movement, but this lack is more than made up for with the spectacular drumming of Igor Cavalera. Igor can lock in with the guitars, matching a beat to every pick stroke, thereby creating a sonic onslaught, and then instantly transitions to a more open groove. Whether his playing is busy or spare, however, he is always hitting with authority. Max might be the front man, but make no mistake, Igor is driving the Sepultura Train.
Another notable thing about Sepultura’s general style on Arise is the fact that the band tends to favor the lower strings. For example, all of the power chords are rooted on the lowest string in the intro. This creates a very meaty sound that stands in contrast to the more mid-rangey snarl of early thrash from the likes of Metallica or Megadeth. As you may know, Max Cavalera only strings his guitar with the lowest four strings, so he tends to favor the low-end by default. The band’s already beefy sound has its girth compounded by the fact that Max and lead guitarist Andreas Kisser double-tracked their rhythm parts, so Sepultura was effectively a four-guitar band on Arise. Furthermore, Scott Burns, who produced the album, was known for his “scooped” sound, meaning that he had a tendency to de-emphasize some of the mid-range frequencies on his recordings in favor of more low and high end frequencies. Not every record Burns produced benefited from this technique, but it worked for Arise.
We’re going to jump ahead quite a bit for the next riffs we examine. After a few minutes of furious thrashing, and hot on the heels of a gloriously bonkers solo from Andreas Kisser around 3:09, the band suddenly cuts the tempo in half and throws in a doom metal riff. This two-measure riff is composed a low E5 power chord and some inverted fifths, such as we discussed a few months ago in the riffological examination of Megadeth’s “The Conjuring.” Those inverted fifths provided more bite than traditional power chords in “The Conjuring,” but on “Dead Embryonic Cells,” with its massive stacks of rhythm guitar tracks, they are barely distinguishable from regular power chords. This doom metal interlude only lasts four bars, functioning as a brief segue into the breakdown.
Oh my, what a magnificent breakdown it is. While the intro had limited melodic movement, the breakdown—for the first eight bars—has none. The first half of the breakdown is a one-measure riff composed of only one note: a palm-muted, open low E. This section is all about the rhythm. The pattern is simple enough: three sixteenth note chugs and a rest, five sixteenth note chugs and a rest, four more chugs, and repeat. The uneven arrangement of the notes is such that the phrase sounds incomplete if played alone, but it leads naturally into its own repetition.
Once again, it is Igor’s masterful drumming that really makes this riff magical. For the first three bars, Igor only hits on the first beat, then lays off. In the fourth bar, he builds up by hitting hard on all four beats, but the build-up isn’t to some eruption of beats, but to a simple but hard-swinging groove. This sort of chug-and-groove style could be seen as a harbinger of things to come with regard to Sepultura’s later, less universally beloved work, but it works like a charm when nestled amongst the brutal thrash of “Dead Embryonic Cells.”
The groove is maintained in the second half of the breakdown, but the one-note monopoly is not. Instead, a new riff is introduced with a steadier 16th note pulse. In it, open low E chugs are interwoven with pull-offs from G to F ♯ on the fourth string and E to E ♭. If we haven’t discussed it before, a pull-off is a technique that involves fretting two notes on the same string, plucking the higher note normally, and then pulling the finger fretting the higher note off the fret board so that the lower fretted note sounds without having to pluck the string again. The way the pull-offs alternate high and low creates a manic push-pull energy to the riff. The high harmony in thirds, added in the riff’s final four bars, only serves to amplify the intensity before re-entering the thrash zone for the song’s third verse.
Sepultura eventually went on to bigger, if not necessarily better things. But for a few years, the boys from Brazil were undeniable thrash gods, and songs like “Dead Embryonic Cells” etch that legacy in stone.
Essential Listening: Sepultura – Arise, Roadrunner Records, 1991
Homework: In the comments, share your favorite Sepultura riff.
Extra Credit: Learn to play “Dead Embryonic Cells”