Machine Messiah album review: Sepultura's new record celebrates Andreas Kisser's genius

Karan Pradhan

January 15, 2017 08:43:30 IST

There’s a handful — perhaps more than a handful of people — who still find it hard to believe that not only has Derrick Green lent his vocals to eight Sepultura albums, but he’s also been the frontman for the Brazilian bruisers for nearly two decades. That’s almost double the time Max Cavalera spent at the helm.

And if you are part of that handful, Machine Messiah, Green's eighth album and the band's 14th overall, is highly recommended for you.

In short, it’s arguably the most brutal statement from the band yet that whether or not you have moved on in the past 20 years, this is Sepultura. No matter how much people might be waiting for that reunion with the Brothers Cavalera.

Quick flashback: The band’s original frontman and founder member Max Cavalera performed for the last time with Sepultura in December 1996. For all the years of speculation, there’s still a lot of haziness surrounding the real reason for his exit. A decade later, Max’s brother Iggor — who was the band’s drummer and also a founder member — quit the band and reconciled with his brother.

And ever since the Cavaleras went their own way, there has been all sorts of chatter about a reunion — something the Sepultura camp has always been quick to dismiss.

Quite rightly so. On the strength of Machine Messiah, why on earth would any band want to break a winning formula?

Cover art for 'Machine Messiah' by Sepultura

Cover art for 'Machine Messiah' by Sepultura

Green is mesmerising, hypnotic and aggression personified in equal parts, and his versatility across the space of just these 10 tracks show exactly why there should never be a reunion.

Paulo Jr’s gut-rumbling bass lines are something we’ve come to expect for years and he doesn’t disappoint.

Drummer Eloy Casagrande is clearly (to paraphrase the words of the oft-imitated never-surpassed Sri Lankan cricket commentator Ranjit Fernando) ‘no mug with the sticks’, but on this album, his quality as a writer really shines.

Which neatly brings us to six-stringed genius Andreas Kisser.

In 2012 at the Bloodstock Festival in Derbyshire, England, I was speaking to Kisser about the success of Kairos — the band’s 12th album. With such fantastic tracks as Dialog and Mask in its arsenal, critics and fans alike had a lot of praise for the record. As I was pointing this out to him, Kisser cut me off. “What are they saying? Andreas Kisser’s back? It’s amazing how often I’ve been gone and back and gone again,” he laughed.

But there was no ego, arrogance or rudeness there. What was palpable was Kisser’s sense of complete disillusionment with the whole narrative around Sepultura (online and in some music magazines) and how incomplete it apparently was without the Cavaleras. But seconds after that exchange, my interview was back on track and we moved onto discussing something else.

Machine Messiah is incontrovertible evidence that Kisser didn’t need to be ‘back’. He’s always been there, but some just didn’t take the time to see him. And now, with Machine Messiah, it’s going to be impossible not to see him anymore. Featuring some of the most eclectic — both stylistically and technically speaking — influences and parts of any Sepultura album, this one is Kisser’s magnum opus. Switching seamlessly from wailing solos to more prog-inspired riffing and then proceeding to experimenting with all sorts of guitar styles, Machine Messiah sees Kisser do it all.

It’s one thing to have an ear for a good beat, lick or progression, but it’s quite another to have that alongside a nose for a good story. And Sepultura have that. Most of the band’s albums tend to be concept albums or at least ones that cling closely to a theme. If Nation was about challenging existing notions of government and governance, A-Lex was based on Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Dante XXI was about Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy and Roots was about... well, the band’s roots.

The story of Machine Messiah, as Kisser told Sepultura’s official website in an interview, “is the robotisation of our society nowadays. The concept of a God Machine who created humanity and now it seems that this cycle is closing itself, returning to the starting point. We came from machines and we are going back to where we came from. The messiah, when he returns, will be a robot, or a humanoid, our bio-mechanical saviour.”

Let’s look at the album now.

I’m something of an album cover fetishist and to me, these are an integral part of the experience of listening to a new record. Never underestimate the value a well-thought out album cover adds to the music it contains. And Machine Messiah’s album cover — the most colourful Sepultura cover that I’ve ever seen — goes perfectly with its theme.

In the aforementioned interview to the band’s official website, Kisser said, "I found the work of Camille Della Rosa during some research I was doing to look for alternative artists to work on the cover of our new album... When I saw her paintings I was really impressed by her style, full of colours and meaning, very unique and alive!... She has that power in her paintings and drawings.

'Machine Messiah', the eponymous album opener, is surprisingly mellow. A solid track, no doubt, but the slow tempo, clean vocals and gradual progression are not what you’d expect a first track from Sepultura to be like. Remember 'Beneath the Remains', 'Arise', 'Refuse/Resist', 'Roots Bloody Roots', 'Come Back Alive', 'Sepulnation' and 'Against'? Well, 'Machine Messiah' is nothing like any of those, but it serves to show that the band’s confidence level is high enough to let its members try out new things.

And the swerve works, because while the opening track does pick up pace towards the end, it does nothing to prepare the listener for the blitzkrieg that is 'I Am The Enemy'. This is old school Sepultura territory, and it almost makes you think things are returning to normal.

Almost.

Because what you’ve got next is the absolute beast that is 'Phantom Self'. Kicking off with a bit of percussion laced with almost Arabian-sounding synthesiser parts, the song is about transforming into some sort of cybernetic entity. The stabbing violins that enter — yes, violins — shortly after are proof if any was needed that this is not business-as-usual Sepultura. And the urgency of Green’s words turn this dystopian nightmare almost real, as does the frankly frightening outro (you simply have to check it out for yourself).

If this album was to be considered Kisser’s postdoctoral dissertation, the fourth track, 'Alethea', is one of those arguments or chapters that later goes on to become the basis for a book. With a drum intro almost reminiscent of 'Uma Cura' (Nation) and featuring some of the most un-Sepultura writing to date, this track answers the question: What would a prog Sepultura song sound like?

The spirit of experimentation comes to the fore once again and fires the instrumental track 'Iceberg Dances'. And the real star of this track is the guitar. All types of guitar. With its Flamenco guitars — Vicente Amigo would sit up and take notice — that kick in a little after the 'Hush'-esque (Deep Purple that is, not Kula Shaker) organ parts roughly midway through the album, the sort of noodlings that would make Baiju Dharmajan (ex-Motherjane) and Susmit Sen (ex-Indian Ocean) proud and the usual breakneck riffing, 'Iceberg Dances' is probably the best instrumental I’ve heard since 'The Call of Ktulu'.

And just when you thought it was time to breathe again, 'Sworn Oath' kicks in with its epic sound and massive symphonic samples. The influence of producer Jens Bogren (whose CV includes such names as Opeth, Soilwork and Devin Townsend) becomes at once clear. Cinematic and atmospheric, the track fits the image of the sort of future Sepultura is predicting and Green is perfect as the narrator of that story.

Elsewhere on the album, 'Resistant Parasites' gives Paulo a bit of time in the limelight with his bassline forming the foundation on which this track is built. And boy, does it explode. Casagrande’s work behind the drums pushes the track into stratosphere.

'Vandals Nest' opens up like a vintage Metallica track and is truly one of the fastest Sepultura songs around. This, the penultimate track on the album, is also evidence that quality thrash doesn’t need just growling or screaming and shouting. Green’s switch from growling to (Fear Factory frontman) Burton C Bell-esque cybernetic singing (by which I mean the way his voice is filtered and produced on 'Digimortal') is a breath of fresh air.

Rounding up the tracklist, 'Silent Violence' and 'Cyber God' are solid enough, but do nothing out of the ordinary. To be fair, when you’re sharing album space with the likes of 'Phantom Self', 'Vandals Nest' and 'Iceberg Dances', you have to be quite extraordinary to get attention.

And speaking of extraordinary, it’s when you go through the album’s two bonus tracks, that you stumble upon an absolute gem. Sepultura is known to cover slightly unconventional tracks. The band’s covers of 'Rise Above' (Black Flag) and 'Scratch the Surface' (Sick of it All) were seen as being off the beaten path. Covering U2 ('Bullet the Blue Sky') saw people begin wondering if the band was losing its plot. And then came that fantastic Prodigy ('Firestarter') cover. So where do you go from there?

Japanese television, that’s where.

'Ultraseven No Uta' sees the band cover 'Urutorasebun No Uta (The Song of Ultra Seven)' — the theme music of Japanese television show Ultra Seven. If you ever wanted to listen to big Derrick Green sing in Japanese, this is your chance.

'Ultraseven No Uta' completes the journey the track 'Machine Messiah' began, and just goes to show how comfortable Sepultura is in its own skin — comfortable enough to push their boundaries, comfortable enough to try different things and comfortable enough to be its own kind of Sepultura, rather than the band started by Max and Iggor Cavalera.

An early contender for album of the year in a year when the Brothers Cavalera are in the middle of their Return to Roots Tour (where they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the iconic album), Machine Messiah raises two final thoughts.

First, it is high time the world appreciated the talent of the members of Sepultura: Kisser, Green, Casagrande and Paulo.

And second, who the hell are the Cavaleras anyway?

Machine Messiah, by Sepultura; Nuclear Blast Records

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 12:50 PM