[Cover artwork: Nightmare in Red, by the incomparable Michael Whelan]
It’s a wild and wonderful world that accommodates a single band that not only finds great success playing contrasting styles of heavy music, but they do so after being directly responsible for developing and evolving those off-shoots pretty much from the ground up. Brazil’s Sepultura is just such a band, and they are one of few peers that have accomplished the task to a level of celebrity (and perhaps notoriety… nu-toriety?) that makes it clear we’d be just as likely to hear the words “Sepultura? I love them!” whooped from a crabby old goat wearing a Pleasure to Kill shirt as we would from a Juggalo in Korn sweatpants easing back the final slugs of Earth’s very last hidden supply of Four Loko beverages.
Sepultura: Three-plus decades and counting spent loudly connecting people of notably diverse walks of life, from most every corner of the globe.
I’m guessing it’s not very difficult to see where I stand in this particular scrap. Beyond that particular truth, however, Beneath the Remains is being celebrated in this installment of Diamonds & Rust largely because innumerable metal fiends, myself included, have this record to thank for helping to bridge the gap between thrash and the arrival of the wonderfully dark and intense realms of death metal amidst the closing moments of the blessed ‘80s. Sure, that’s something quite a number of other notable bands also had a persuasive hand in helping to scoot along, but a sound argument can be made for Beneath the Remains not only standing as the most important work of Sepultura’s career, but as the very best death / thrash album of all time… If we were to, you know, suspend the existence of Celtic Frost for a day. Obviously the caliber of the music here has close to everything to do with such a sentiment, but there’s also time & place, impact of home base, and a few other subordinate blessings that add to the juiciness of such as conclusion.
Let’s begin the journey at the most logical starting point: the crucial first impression that will forever lend credence to judging every single book since creation by… the cover.
:: ACCIDENTAL EXCELLENCE ::
As was tradition for most every plucky metal freak that roamed the lands neighboring dinosaurs billions of years ago, Beneath the Remains was a blind buy for yours truly. The album was nabbed in the summer of 1989 alongside an equally cloaked in ghoulish mystery Slowly We Rot CD, with nary a clue that Sep and Obituary were oddly linked via a behind-the-scenes artwork controversy innocently prompted by one-time Roadrunner A&R prez Monte Conner. The brothers Cavalera and Andreas Kisser were given a choice of art for Beneath the Remains, and Max found himself particularly taken with the webbed dismay behind Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre after discovering a book that compiled the works of the amazing Michael Whelan. Max sent the image to Roadracer, happy as a puppy with two peters about the prospect of their first major label release being adorned with such deliciously grim imagery, and subsequently settled in for the waiting game alongside his bandmates for the final product. Then, in stepped Conner, who felt Whelan’s shadowy Nightmare in Red was better suited for the Sep release, shelving Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre for future use on Obituary’s Cause of Death in 1991. Max and crew were… not exactly thrilled.
Here’s the thing, though: Monte Conner was dead on with his assessment. The grimness behind Nightmare in Red is darker, warmer and shrouded in more of a sense of obscure dread when compared to the bright, in-your-face madness of Bloodcurdling, and that was precisely the ideal mood setter for walking into this glorious slice of equally bleak, unexplored severity. Whelan’s vision of a radiant skull carpeted with all things strange and nightmarish slowly rising from hidden depths was perfect because it mirrored the arrival of Sepultura and Beneath the Remains as a powerful and sinister force on the cusp of the soon-to-be extremely extreme early ‘90s. In short, suddenly happening across this haunting cover nestled beside other recent Roadracer offerings such as Defiance’s Product of Society or Annihilator’s Alice in Hell marked an extremely memorable HOLY SHIT moment, so score one particularly positive point for Señor Monte Conner.
:: HER NAME IS RIO AND SHE THRASHES ON THE SAND ::
Beyond the pivotal role of introducing much of the world outside of South America to Sepultura the band, Beneath the Remains also held the unique distinction of being a bit of an unexpected ambassador for Brazil to a number of metal fans. There was certainly no shortage of bands hailing from that particular hemisphere throughout the ‘80s, but the bulk of US stores didn’t have the wherewithal to stock obscure South American metal from labels such as Cogumelo Records. However, with the arrival of Roadracer’s version of the band, a whole new world abruptly stepped to the stage. Not to say we were all totally ignorant of Brazil prior to meeting Sepultura, but the colorful visions of carnival and memories of victory slides from Pelé now had a much more apposite and enticing connection for those becoming increasingly enamored with extreme music. Moreover, the triumph of Beneath the Remains likely had more than just a little to do with fresh attention thrown toward Brazilian root bands such as Dorsal Atlântica, Vulcano, Mutilator, Sarcofago, Overdose, and even their punkier kinsfolk in Ratos de Porão, not to mention the interest it abruptly threw toward Sep’s works prior to ’89.
Bottom line: Music is, by and large, fully intent on entertainment, but we should never underestimate its capacity to teach and inspire exploration. While it perhaps seems ludicrous to think a crew of wild 19 year-olds playing extreme thrash might encourage equally feral youths from 5000+ miles away to think more about life and times in Brazil, that’s precisely what happened.
:: MUSIC IS… LIKE… THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE, MAN ::
We’re clearly here for the sake of the music though, no? In that regard, Beneath the Remains demolished the curve by delivering 100% thriller, zero filler. While it’s true you’d quicker find the record adorning the top shelves of Greatest Thrash Albums of All Time rankings in lieu of similar ventures dedicated to the earliest versions of death metal, it imperiously strutted that nebulous realm between the two by offering a masterclass in how to perfectly balance raw, shadowy menace with brilliant, melodic sophistication.
As mentioned earlier, I encountered BtR and Slowly We Rot together, and the shift to the latter from mid-80s’ metal would have been all the more bumpy without a sudden obsession with Sepultura to help guide the way. Like many others, I was a very enthusiastic thrash kid, but like the off-shoot itself, my tastes were becoming more sophisticated as endless third-tier bands attempted to gain footholds, so records such as Forbidden Evil, Doomsday for the Deceiver / No Place for Disgrace, Punishment for Decadence et al. were all getting a fair bit of attention. With Beneath the Remains, the crux of the record was built on a very aggressive foundation that explored the horrors of both internal and external conflict—giving Sodom a run for their money in terms of delivering the most vicious anti-war record ever recorded—but there were so, so many moments where wonderfully brilliant bursts of refined melody exploded through the gloom, demonstrating that Sepultura was already an intricate band prepared for the next level of commercial success.
The band was also unafraid to wear their influences on their sleeves in 1989. Everything was filtered through this terrifically distinctive Brazilian lens, which made it clear the rawness and belligerence of early Sodom, Kreator and Destruction remained paramount. So, in the case of a song like “Stronger than Hate,” we hear an abundance of vigorous thrash riffing, hostile battery, and gruffly barked vocals, but current with the trends of the day, it was all beautifully blended with a very clear appreciation for the sophisticated sort of melodic fretwork Kirk Hammett tacked to a record like Ride the Lightning. Again, Sep didn’t really sound like Metallica, but the choice to bring the very underrated guitar talents of Andreas Kisser aboard for 1987’s Schizophrenia was already paying HUGE dividends in 1989, as Beneath the Remains would not have reached its pinnacle without Kisser’s brilliant approach to melody in both riffing and leads. In a certain light, those who’d come into thrash alongside Metallica and subsequently found themselves… a bit thrown by the Bay Area kings’ new direction with …And Justice for All found a thrilling new companion in Sepultura to usher them into more extreme realms. Plus, Igor could drum circles around Lars, and he seemed somehow equally as likely to be part of an actual drum circle due to the explicit anti-war stance of the band. Hippie death thrash or gtfo.
The sophistication here wasn’t simply limited to Kisser’s melodic influence, though. Sepultura showed a level of songwriting dexterity that managed to surpass the leap they’d already accomplished between the grim Morbid Visions (1986) and thrashier Schizophrenia (1987), and even producer Scott Burns admitted to being impressed with how polished and eager the band was upon landing in Rio de Janeiro for recording. Simply put, they’d done their homework, they understood metal from its roots, and they were very ready to take the world by storm. A song like “Sarcastic Existence,” for example, showcased how well the band hair-pinned through moods, tempos and influences, jumping from the gate with multiple varieties of scoot before splitting the welkin with that explosive melodic burst around 1:20. We also get shades of Voivod just before the 2-minute mark, a complex bit of serrated drum and riff interplay, and one of Kisser’s most batshit crazy leads that eventually rolls into an all-out whammy bar whatthefuckfest before everything eventually cycles back to Voivod and a masterful nod to early Kreator / Ventor Rototom drumming in the closing moments.
While on the subject of Scott Burns, he was clearly a boon for the record. The nascent Florida death metal scene was only just beginning to disrupt the grave dirt, so Burns wasn’t quite a household name yet and agreed to take on Sepultura at a discount simply due to his interest in traveling to Brazil. Unsurprisingly, that signature “polished crudeness” of Morrisound was an ideal match for a young, highly motivated band caught in that golden middle-ground that blinks into existence when a consummate balance between raw roots and an unmistakable hunger for the next level gallops in perfect harmony. The balance from start to finish on BtR is just fantastic—each instrument gets ample breakout moments, and as much attention is awarded to the dirt as there is to the shine. Plus, the distinct connect to the developing Florida death metal scene not only opened doors for camaraderie in the form of friendships and guest spots (in this case, Kelly Shaefer of Atheist, John Tardy of Obituary, and Scott Latour & Francis Howard of the very underrated Incubus providing background vocals on “Stronger than Hate”), it very literally bled into the riffs and overall aggression of BtR. So much so, by the time the recording sessions were coming to a close, Sepultura came up with one last track: the album’s heaviest hitter “Primitive Future,” which closes the record on a beautifully brutal note.
Again, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see any number of Sepultura releases crop up when discussions turn to the band’s true pinnacle; they are a very “this is the album I heard first, so I love it the most” sort of group, in addition to being true innovators. With Beneath the Remains, however, we get all the innovation, the marked leap in proficiency, the ironclad songwriting, plus the added bonus of an accompanying backstory that’s fit for a compelling documentary. I mean, here we are 2k words deep and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Max Cavalera, the member with the best grasp of the english language at the time, literally had to trick his way onto a Pan Am flight to New York in the hopes of somehow selling the Sepultura story to record execs. It’s difficult to convey the immensity of that sort of thing amidst an age where all one need do in order to hear a band from a very distant land is open up a browser or do a search within a streaming app. Imagine being a 19 year-old kid from Brazil bamboozling your way to New York for the first time without the convenience of a cell phone or the internet as some sort of safety net connecting you to home, and then returning with a multi-record contract and one of metal’s most notable up-and-coming producers in tow. That full sense of thrill, adventure, and fearless youth is fully captured up and down Beneath the Remains.
Put aside all the ancillary windfalls to simply focus on the music, though, and we’re left with… Well, yeah, one of the more sound candidates for the greatest death / thrash albums ever made. At the least, Beneath the Remains is a top fiver that’s 100% unafraid to stand eye-to-eye with the likes of early Celtic Frost, Possessed, Pestilence et al. The riffs are there, the power and aggression, the surly barking, the knack for dappling the brutality with quick bursts of beauty to add further hook, and it’s all packaged behind one of the more iconic and mightily tempting artworks that wouldn’t have gotten the nod if it weren’t for yet another wild gamble that went outside the band’s wishes. It’s almost as if outside forces were a very willing companion to the launch of Sepultura into the big leagues. And really, in the end, why discount the full story behind Beneath the Remains on any level when each and every element related to the release adds up to something extraordinary enough that the result is a truly timeless classic that will never, ever lose its brilliance.
Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains: unmistakable evidence of a killer band absolutely destroying at the very top of their game.