Fun fact: The late 1980s were a musically dynamic time, and home to a particular fresh-faced breed of metal-fan. Always eager to push their boundaries to new and exciting extremes, these cool kids would quickly move ‘up the ladder’, processing then discarding the discographies of older ‘classic’ bands, or sometimes just eschewing that work entirely. Sepultura rode high among the names in this wave. Motörhead? No thanks, grandad.
Speaking of which, when Sepultura’s Beneath The Remains was released in April 1989, Motörhead’s Overkill album was ten years old. Or to put it another way, only ten years old. This would be like a teenager in a cinema foyer today telling you “Actually I only watch new, cutting-edge movies, yeah? Shazam! is my thing. Kick-Ass? That’s what middle-aged men go on about…”
Beneath The Remains is now 30 years old. Overkill is holding up pretty well, too. Time is the best leveller.
Founded in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1984 by brothers Max and Igor Cavalera, Sepultura’s first full-length album, Morbid Visions, is straight, meat-and-potatoes death metal; blast-beats and relentless snarling. And if that’s your thing it certainly isn’t a bad debut, but there was little unique about either their approach or execution. The 1987 follow-up Schizophrenia benefited from sharper production and more varied structure in the songs themselves. Slower, more measured riffs intersperse the onslaught, and the thrash influence of bands like Slayer can be felt throughout.
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But it was 1989’s Beneath The Remains which put Sepultura on the global map. They were no longer the kids playing in the garage by this point. Now signed to the major genre-label Roadrunner Records, the album was recorded in Nas Nuvens Studio in Rio de Janeiro and produced by the legendary Scott Burns, known for his work with Obituary, Deicide and Cannibal Corpse among many others.
With lyrics penned by vocalist/guitarist Max Cavalera and guitarist Andreas Kisser, the music of the nine tracks was a collaboration between these two, Igor and Paulo Jr on bass. The cleaner production on Beneath The Remains perfectly complements a band really beginning to find their own voice, helped by the fact that at this point, Max’s vocals can actually be understood without having to refer to the in-sleeve lyric sheet.
The eponymous title track opens proceedings, a clean guitar picking out a layered melody and accompanied by an ominous choir which phases in and out. Then, after 50 seconds of intricate foreboding, the fury begins. Switching between the pounding drive of death metal and the more casual (if that’s the word) swagger of thrash, ‘Beneath The Remains’ sets the stage for what’s to come.
Standout songs arrive in the form of ‘Inner Self’, ‘Mass Hypnosis’ and ‘Stronger Than Hate’ (the latter featuring lyrics by Kelly Shaefer of the band Atheist), all with hooks that border on the sing-a-long and that would be favourites of the band’s live shows throughout this era. They carry an energy which makes them perfect fuel for the moshpit, the slower sections of each still driven relentlessly on by Igor’s double kick-drumming.
The development of Igor’s drumwork alone on Beneath The Remains is outstanding. He’d already proven himself to be a capable performer, but the intricacy which runs throughout the album gives it real flair.
Tracks like ‘Lobotomy’ and ‘Sarcastic Existence’ feel closer to the technical metal vibe of bands like Death and Pestilence. Andreas Kisser’s swooping soloing is impressive, but the songs themselves lack the personality of the big hitters and they end up as filler in the process. Even in ‘Hunger’ where Kisser’s fretwork crosses the line into outlandishness, there’s just not enough to lift it above album-track status.
‘Slaves Of Pain’ comes with a catchy chorus and returns to channeling the thrash-ethos of Anthrax (minus the melodic singing, of course). We close with the shortest piece, ‘Primitive Future’, where the boys floor the pedal in an intense race for the finish line with a death metal blast-beat.
Overall, Beneath The Remains has a measured urgency, elaborate one moment and unapologetically scathing the next.
The album was followed by Arise in 1991, refining the cleaner sound and more intricate song structure, also under the auspices of Scott Burns. This lent the band an accessibility which resulted in three multi-format singles being released from the album, a PR-push matched by 1993’s seminal Chaos A.D. Sepultura continued to develop, incorporating tribal elements into their music which were taken to their seamless conclusion in 1996’s Roots. They’re a band who arguably became less extreme as they grew more successful. But more importantly, Sepultura actually became a much better band for it.
Vocalist Max Cavalera left the band after this to create Soulfly. Sepultura continued with Derrick Green on vocals, but neither project would recapture the magic of the early 1990s. Both bands continue to this day, each ploughing their own furrow in their own way. Which is what music is supposed to be about.
Ultimately, Beneath the Remains is not Sepultura’s best work. But it was at the point of release, and represents firm progression in the band’s sound and in shoring up the influence they’d come to have over the extreme metal genre. Crucially, the album sounds every bit as impressive today as it did three decades ago. That’s a precious thing in itself…