Nice girls don't listen to death metal. Not one of my friends listens to it. Music for deviants by deviants, I thought. The last stop before your parents' Blue Cross starts paying your way to the deprogramming center.
That was before Sepultura.
Death (or thrash) metal has a nasty reputation. It doesn't exactly have a come-hither name, like "mood music," and it goes downhill from there. (Sepultura, for instance, means "grave" in the band's native tongue. Charming.) A cursory glance or listen elicits a heap o' misconceptions.
Similarly, mention Brazil and you'll no doubt conjure up images of sunny beaches populated by scantily clad girls from Ipanema, which is about as close to reality as the problem-solving methods on Bill Cosby's TV show.
Sepultura is a death/thrash-metal band from Brazil. Its members - singer/guitarist Max Cavalera, his younger brother Igor Cavalera on drums, bass player Paulo Jr., and lead guitarist Andreas Kisser - all come from a rotten neighborhood in Belo Horizonte, a city of nearly two million, north of Rio. Their average age is 22.
When the band members were teen-agers, the angry sounds of groups like Metallica and Slayer came to them through the Brazilian underground. The raw, furious music spoke volumes, and Max Cavalera used to translate the lyrics from English to Portuguese so he could better grasp what these bands were saying. Living in a land of inopportunity, the boys did what any ghetto-locked rapper in America would do: quit the no-hope job and the what-for school and formed a band. They endured a little more than their fair share of opposition; after all, how many Brazilian metal bands can you name?
Somehow their debut LP, Morbid Visions, and the follow-up, Schizophrenia, crept out of South America and became sought-after imports. Word got around to Roadrunner Records, which, with a little help from translators and Federal Express, signed them sight unseen. Sepultura went international with the release of Beneath the Remains, known in thrash circles as a miniclassic on the order of Slayer's Reign in Blood.
Sepultura is on yet another tour of America, in support of their fourth album, Arise, this time with thrashy buds Sacred Reich, Napalm Death, and Sick of it All in a package billed as New Titans on the Bloc. It's a good opportunity for Sepultura bassist Paulo Jr. to educate me about some common misunderstandings (of which I'm way guilty) about his band's music, Brazil, and life in general. His English shows more mastery of slang than grammar, but I'm not bilingual, so why criticize?
Falsehood 1: Death/thrash metal is loud, noisy, cacophonic crap. Yes, it's loud, but it's far from unstructured, and all you need to do is listen carefully. To prove a point, I sat my mom down in front of the CD player and spun Arise. She didn't explode. Instead she admired the incredibly fast meter and complex arrangement of the rhythm patterns. The crazed, frenzied leads on the title track could be a soundtrack for a riot. Max spits short grunts of poetic fury: "I see the world - old!/I see the world - dead!" Brother Igor's drums run from industrial to tribal in an impossible flurry, while Paulo's bass is a bottomless black backdrop. A brief respite from the rhythmic strafing comes in the form of melodic acoustic guitar on "Desperate Cry." Impressive.
Falsehood 2: Death-metal bands consist of evil people who want to pollute children with Satanic shenanigans. Paulo doesn't seem too evil. In fact he giggles sometimes, and he's rather self-effacing. Do you have to be a mean mofo to sing about all this depressing, angry stuff? "That's not angry," he corrects. "That's the truth."
Slayer's brand of thrash is on the Beelzebub tip, but they came from a garage in San Francisco where life's pretty easy. Sepultura's Brazil, on the other hand, is a place that suffers from 100 per cent inflation every couple of months. Kidnappings are commonplace. Speak out against the government a little too loudly and you might just disappear. If you've got long hair and tattoos, the cops will "beat your face," says Max, and ask questions later. If you're a homeless kid, as many Brazilian teens are, you're fair game for vigilante death squads. Homeless people are, as we all know, bad for business. "Murder," a cut from Arise, is Max's view of an incident in which eight inmates suffocated due to overcrowding in a Brazilian jail. With this kind of hell in your hometown, who needs the Devil?
"That's what happens in Brazil, in South America, in the world," says Paulo. "We just try to say the truth, show people the reality. People like just to talk about love [in music], and in the back you lie and talk shit. It doesn't work like that any more."
Falsehood 3: Death metal's a guy thing. While it's true that gals usually shy away from such openly aggressive music, Sepultura has a small but growing number of female fans. Arise says lyrically exactly what you feel around PMS time. Further, Brazilian women are into much more studly music than us Yankettes. "The girls in Brazil don't like too much `make-up stuff'," says Paulo of pretty-boy bands like Poison. "If you go like that, they're gonna think you're a fag. For sure they will."
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Falsehood 4: Death-metal bands are tattoo-laden, narrow-minded morons. Tattoos may be a matter of personal taste, but they saved Igor's skin. The guys love to tell the story of how, while on a European tour, Igor was called up for mandatory service in the Brazilian army. Unable and unwanting to run home and serve, he was branded a deserter and sentenced, in absentia, to two years in jail and a three-year tour of duty. Resigned to his fate, Igor turned himself in after the European tour. While he stood in line waiting to be examined, the army physician noticed the tattoos adorning Igor's body. "How many of those do you have?" he asked. "Three," Igor responded. "Get the hell out of here," the doctor ordered, thus sparing the untimely demise of Sepultura.
As for being narrow-minded, Sepultura has taught me more than a thing or two. "I like everything," says Paulo of his musical preferences. "Metal, rock and roll, Spanish and Brazilian music, classical, jazz. Jaco Pastorius [the late South Florida jazz innovator] is one of my favorite bass players. We listen to a lot of different stuff, and try to take something good from all kinds of music. I respect every kind of music. Sometimes I don't like it, but I never say, `I hate that.' I keep it to myself.
"Everyone should try to keep your mind open and try to listen to anything you can. Don't think about `They're death metal, they're thrash metal.' Keep your mind open to the music, 'cause music is just one language."
SEPULTURA performs with Napalm Death, Sacred Reich, and Sick of it All at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Institute, 1625 Drexel Ave, Miami Beach, 531-5914. Tickets cost $17.50 and $20.