This past weekend I was fortunate enough to catch Max and Igor Cavalera playing Sepultura’s iconic 1996 record Roots in full, as part of their twentieth anniversary “Return to Roots” world tour. The brothers were backed up by Max’s cohorts in Soulfly, Marc Rizzo and Tony Campos (now of Fear Factory, ex-Static-X), and while it would have been nice to see Andreas Kisser and Paulo Jr. up there with them, it has to be said that they weren’t exactly missed. If Sepultura’s post-Roots output is anything to go by, it’s pretty clear that Max was always the heart and soul of that band, (although they seem to be faring better sans-Igor these days). The gig itself was outstanding, and seeing Max grasping and screaming into the mic with one hand while ploughing away on his camo-printed, four-strung LTD in the other while the considerably more intimidating Igor pounds away on his structurally-reinforced rig behind him is something that has been burnt into my mind for years to come. Yet what truly made the night so special was that it brought into perspective just how important and influential Roots has been, not just to heavy music, but to my own life in general.
Roots occupies an integral position in my own musical development. Although I’d hesitate to call it a gateway album, it was one of three albums that I discovered around the same time that definitely broadened my horizons and broke down my early conceptions of what music “should” and could sound like—the other two being the self-titled Rage Against The Machine album (1992) and Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell (1990). The last of these is obviously a less revolutionary record than the other two, and they are all clearly based around a compelling groove and surface-level rebellion that instantly appealed to my then burgeoning and angst-filled adolescent, white, male psyche. However, having been introduced to the likes of classic rock, heavy metal and 90s alternative and grunge via my parents, such genres had been simultaneously stripped of their rebellious nature. These records provided, for the first time in my listening experience, something that felt genuinely aggressive and, if not exactly dangerous, then genuinely threatening; and of these three it was Roots by which I was perhaps most taken and continue to revere most heavily to this day.
For a long time, Roots was the heaviest album I had ever laid ears upon, and in many ways it still is. Sure, Everything Is Fire and Funeral Doom are things, and Meshuggah’s Koloss probably outclasses Roots within its own division; but there’s just something so unadulterated and primal about this record that keeps it in contention for the crown over two decades and countless elevations later. For one thing, Igor hits harder than any drummer I’ve ever heard or seen—by a considerable margin—and his performance on this record is nothing short of ferocious. Likewise, while Paulo Jr. has always been the least essential and celebrated member of Sepultura (despite being the band’s longest-remaing member), his tone on this record is utterly colossal on this record, and there are fewer combinations that sound so sublime and utterly unstoppable as when he locks in alongside Igor’s kicks and toms. Likewise, the guitar tone on this record is utterly phenomenal. Ross Robinson may have fallen out of favour in recent times, but at the time he was on the cutting-edge of metal production and of the many masterpieces he’s been involved in, Roots might just be his crowning achievement. Robinson’s production defined the sound of a generation of heavy music artists, and there’s no mistake that he was at the helm of the best Sepultura album released since this landmark effort: 2013’s unfortunately-titled The Mediator Between The Head and Hands Must Be The Heart.
The record is packed to the brim with classics, but there’s no escaping its iconic title track. The vicious “Ratamahatta” (now featuring Core 10’s David Silveria) is where the album’s tribal element truly came to the fore and tracks like “Attitude” and “Cut Throat” go just as hard. For a long time “Straighthate” was my favourite song on the album, and probably still is. The track is a lot more basic than anything else on the record but its perfect distillation of agro nu-metal within a thrash template spoke volumes to my angsty teenage self and the track continues to strike a visceral nerve to this day. Nevertheless, it’s “Roots Bloody Roots” that looms large over this record—so much so that at the concert they both opened and closed with it! (The second time playing it frantically sped-up, before pulling a Machine Head – “A Thousand Lies”–style slow down at the end.) The track also looms heavily over the metal world in general, with Sam Dunn using it in the opening moments of his series Metal Evolution to illustrate the sheer power and appeal of the genre. Unlike other period staples, such as Pantera’s “Walk” or Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”, “Roots Bloody Roots” has never grown stale. It’s evergreen quality likely has a lot to do with the unmitigated passion and conviction that comes through in Max Cavalera’s vocals here and elsewhere on the album. The guy is an absolute lifer, and I struggle to think of any musical icon more dedicated and passionate about his craft and field than Max has proved himself for over thirty years. Oh, and throw whatever breakdown you want at me: the end of “Roots Bloody Roots” destroys all.
Roots is both a very progressive and regressive album at the same time. Depending on which circles you travel within, the album is either the pinnacle of Sepultura’s progression as a band, which cemented their claim to being one of the most important bands in the history of heavy music; or else it’s watered down, nu metal heresy that signaled the once-great Brazilians’ ultimate betrayal of their death/thrash roots. Roots was certainly influenced by the nu metal movement that was coming to fruition at the time, but I’d say it’s far from being a nu metal album in itself. It’s certainly a bouncier record than Sepultura had produced up until that point, and the lyrics delve heavily into the genre’s trademark brand of “I’m a crazy ticking time-bomb that could go off at any moment”–isms—and it, of course, features that one song with Jonathan Davis (and, let’s not forget, DJ Lethal) on it—but the similarities more or less end there. Not that there’s anything wrong with nu metal in and of itself, especially during that initial furtive period, but Roots remains very much (uh…) rooted in the ultra-aggressive thrash metal from whence it came. If it is a nu metal album then it’s definitely the best nu metal album out there.
The album is surely not without its faults. It’s way too long for one thing—weighing in at an overwhelming sixteen tracks—and there’s a not-quite severe but certainly noticeable drop off (as Noyan pointed out) from about track eight or ten onward. The back-to-back pairing of the instrumental interlude “Jasco” and tribal jam “Itsari” certainly doesn’t help matters, and I doubt whether anyone has ever made it all the way through the thirteen-minute closing track “Canyon Jam” (which consists largely of crickets punctuated by gunshots) in one, attentive sitting. However, everything leading up to that is damn near faultless and utterly revolutionary for its day. There’s no denying its impact on heavy music at large, and I honestly think my own life would have been a lot different and a lot worse off had I never heard it.