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After finding huge success with Chaos A.D. and Roots, the band got in a bad habit of doing too much with their music. Mediocre Against, Nation, and Roorback predictably failed to impress the world, and the band was steadily losing its position as one of the greatest voices to represent the global South in a US/Europe-dominated heavy metal community. They were in serious need of going back to the basics to reset their minds, anchor themselves to a clear and simple concept, and make a concise statement of what they are all about.
In this context, writing music based on a classic literature was a brilliant decision - outsourcing the spinal concept of an album presented the band with a golden opportunity to take a step back and concentrate solely on fleshing out the music, while at the same time do it in a simple fashion (and do it well). Choosing Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy was equally crucial. With a literature that passed the test of time and written on a simple and archaic theme (it describes hell, purgatory, and heaven), it was going to guarantee familiarity for the listeners.
Not having to worry about sewing together a thematic framework worked, and the music is a huge improvement compared to the past. The band really trimmed the fat with this set of songs - from entrance into hell in “Lost” and exit from heaven in “Premium Mobile” and “Still Flame”, Dante XXI is very straightforward and only 39 minutes long, and it is their shortest album since Schizophrenia. Andreas Kisser in particular deserves credit in this regard. Like in Roorback, Andreas takes stylistic inspiration from hardcore and thrash, but this time no riffs overstay its welcome. His furious and precise chugs sound the most focused since he joined the band, showcased immediately with the first proper song “Dark Wood of Error” (“Convicted in Life”, “False”, and “Crown and Miter” are some of the other highlights). Similarly, Igor Cavalera also sounds reinvigorated on his drums, packing more punch to his craft than he has in years - his relentless and meticulous use of bass drums across the entire album is greatly satisfying for fans of extreme metal, especially on the first two songs (not counting “Lost”) where he, accompanying the guitar, sets the tone of the whole album. Although Paulo Jr.’s bass contribution is usually minimal because he merely copies whatever Andreas plays, but even he is making his presence felt this time. His moments to shine are rare, like a brief interlude in “Nuclear Seven” and intro to “Repeating the Horror”, but they are there.
Past outcomes in Seputlura’s attempts at converging diverse musical elements have been questionable, and they once again meddle with the same trickery here in Dante XXI. But they pull it off this time, borrowing wisely from Western classical music without compromising the commitment to keeping things simple. Cellos that announce the arrival into Purgatory (“Limbo”) and Heaven (“Eunoe”) adds a medieval finesse and segments the album without compromising its overall momentum. The horns are also thrown in to engineer hellish and heavenly mood on “False” and “Crown and Miter”, respectively. Such additional instrumentations are not innovative by any stretch of the imagination, but they are the right cosmetic choice for enhancing the charm of this album.
The Divine Comedy also serves as an allegory to the band’s struggles since the departure of charismatic and popular Max Cavalera in 1996. In one of his best vocal performance to date, Derrick Green triumphantly shouts “There is a way out! / It took a long time to get where we are / it wasn’t easy but it never is / Big steps, keep moving on / I have my own two feet; don’t need you to walk for me”, as the band reaches heaven in “Crown and Miter”. This labored journey of musical ascent from hell to heaven is also a veiled statement of how there is no turning back for the band - despite the public demand, the days of pure thrash will never come back and neither will Max. Such a statement is not only brave but also convincing because, for the first time, the band is playing music in a way that compliments Derrick’s vocal style. Sepultura's brand of fury is no longer primal, giving Derrick the right stage on which he can play to his vocal strengths and shine and no longer sounding like a failed replacement for Max. Sepultura is finally reborn with a new and convincing identity.
For the band, Dante XXI is a determined middle finger to the negative campaign against the band from US and elsewhere, and a welcome stake of claim to being one of the best bands from Latin America. 10 years since the release, the album still doesn't feel outdated, and the ‘less-is-more’ approach to the music and fighting spirit packed therein puts this album among the best in the band’s career.
Whether or not they are groove, hardcore, nu-metal, or thrash riffs, there are some good riffs here. Even more unbelievable is that they're part of songs that are pretty good, too. Nothing stellar, but on a Sepultura level, they were the best material the band was capable of creating in a decade. That's where this album has an advantage over the previous albums. There's an increased level of productivity and efficiency in the writing. Now of course this varies from song to song, and Sepultura can never help but pad their albums with filler after filler on proportions that surpass that of mind-numbing (just not as far as before).
"Ostia," "Crown And Miter," and (to some extents) "Nuclear Seven" and "Convicted In Life" are what make Dante XXI stand out. The fervor of thrash metal with the bitterness and crunch of metallic hardcore can be heard, and that's the difference between intensity and the meandering shallowness of Sepultura's angsty groove formula. These four songs show Sepultura in some kind of revival with a coarser guitar tone richly executing vicious riffs. Bass follows the guitars with fatness and desiccated heaviness under a polished production job. The groove aspect with slappy bass lines and that massive layering had started to become phased out.
This shift toward a harder edged sound was the right move, but looking at the whole picture shows a band still in a rut. Musically they've progressed in a direction that stuck to proper utilization of riffs and a darker atmosphere, but they only tapped into it. That's why overall this album is a failure. It brought in a rougher approach to the tough guy groove and morphed it into musky imitation of thrash and proper hardcore. That aspect can be enjoyable, but the core of Dante XXI is still firmly rooted in that bro music. That means more tracks than not that are devoted to the stale, caveman groove from before.
Following the aforementioned points, the one that made no improvement is Derrick Green. This jackass has the most primitive, emotionless yell I've heard in these type of genres. They're the same dry harsh-yelling spouting the dumbest shit. They always bring the music down no matter what other percussion fills or downtuned rummaging is going on. His vocals consume the charred tone, the assaulting drums, the floundering tempos, and the rehashed ideas because their prominence dictates what goes on. He's such an integral part of what has ruined this band that there's no way these guys have a chance in hell of surpassing one song off of the late '80s / early '90s material (let alone one whole album from that era).
That is, unless "Still Flame" is brought into the equation. You want a throwback to Roots' lame tribal experimentation, then this is an experimentation gone wrong. Expect tribal, expect bad vocal repetition of a couple words, some folk melodies, and dull electronic beats. Despite what meandering, dark atmosphere it invokes, it's a track that is so ill-fitting and boring on fast and loud album like this. Hearing this reminded me of Cavalera on the rest of the album. For his last offering to this decimated band, he gives an energetic performance. The kit sounds ripe and he rolls and pounds as well as the refined production allowed him. Fine, but it was no tremendous step up from what the last few albums demonstrated. His final albums for Sepultura culminated in an album that has him doing what should have been minimal to his skills. Instead, years of subpar, stock drumming became his standard. That's why this one feels like it's miles ahead of the few peers before this.
So yes, compared to Roots through Roorback, Dante XXI is impressive. It's impressive in that it shows a band trying to get better. It has Sepultura breaking out from their obsession with bad riffs and dick-posturing for some music that lets loose a little. It's a Sepultura that breaks off from the previous era and leads into another. Whether they take advantage of this risk or not is up to them. They were dumb enough to write and record Roots through this album, though, so hell no.
Since 'Roots' and the departure of Max Cavalera this band has gone from strength to strength on each release; from having no good songs, to having one, then two and now arriving at a release that has a staggering four decent songs. I tip my hat to you, Sepultura, unfortunately the rest of the album is drivel; boring and uncreative groove metal mixed with large doses of half-cocked hardcore aggression. I can understand the natural progression from their tribal nu-metal chimera back into their Chaos AD groove, but I can't see why Andreas Kisser can't emulate his previously ball-busting style he wowed us with back on releases such as 'Arise' and 'Beneath the Remains'. I feel the pangs of guilt as a fall back on the tried and true method of slagging off a band for not being what they once were; the times are a changin' as they say, but damnit, some things just shouldn't give in so easily.
Sepultura are doing their best to find a new sound, and I suppose they're getting better but these growing pains are lasting an awfully long time, there is a sense of apathy in their gradual steps forward; simply giving up because people won't think the same way about them without the return of Max, which is bollocks to be quite fair. More likely than not, people want his return to be triumphant to forgive him for past transgressions, however gauging his musical creativity and aptitude by his latest work in Cavalera Conspiracy, one should not be too optimistic at any sign of his return nor at the prosect of future Soulfly releases. Irrelevancy and wank aside, this current band incarnation is of its own and its fruition is nigh, or so I hope.
The improvements from 'Roorback' into 'Dante XXI' are quite obvious; the riffage is strong and fast in a lot of places and when it slows down it's still somewhat effective although it suffers heavily from the lack of innovation and the atavistic sense of sticking to banal groove-based power chording restricted to a single area. Drums are a top-notch affair although the snare drum production is a bit obnoxious in places, but I suppose that the guitar tone could be blamed for not being heavy enough to overpower said snare drum. The solos have made something of a stronger comeback but they aren't particularly virtuosity is questionable, for now they are merely good and serve the purpose of being a solo; nothing more, nothing less.
Of course song writing is where it's these days, and apparently this album takes heavily from the concepts espoused by Dante as referring the circles of hell, purgatory and all that afterlife nonsense. To be quite honest, barring song titles such as "The City of Dis" and "Ostia", the song lyrics never really struck me as pertaining to a set pacing and their allusions to the book are shallow at best. The average pillock's knowledge of the book in question is regurgitated and then swirled amongst personal beliefs and social commentary, it's bearable but I would not be recommend that you bust your balls reading the liner notes and lyrics as you listen to this album. Derrick's barking vocals make the lyrics very incoherent but who cares, besides he's quite effective as a loudmouthed counterpoint to the groove. The song structures themselves are set in stone, and deviation or aberrations do not occur very freely except within the filler tracks that utterly superfluous in every sense of the word and its synonyms too. Intro - riff - chorus - riff - bridge - solo or weird melodic bit - riff - finish; it does not get any more complex than that, not to say that Sepultura were ever a hugely complex band back in their heyday but they had somewhere in the region of e to the power of nine thousand riffs to draw attention from their awkwardly written lyrics and lack of variance.
Therein lies the problem with this release however; as it has been said quite a few times now, it is definitely an improvement and helps to establish the trend that Sepultura are moving forward even if it is at something of a haggard and drunken pace, but despite these improvements the band lacks the riffing power that was ever present in their earlier works whilst backed up by a decent rhythm section and with one or two shredding solos. The riffs can be fast but there's maybe five styles to the riffing, and when they're slow they drag the songs down the pits of mediocrity and conjure images of the more forgettable songs on 'Chaos AD'. The solos allude to any sense of purpose when they attempt something melodic or potentially tribal-esque. The songs blend together and their distinguishing features are usual banal moments such as choruses or slightly different riffing in juxtaposition to a drum fill. Most unusual in this cavalcade of groove is the final song however; 'Still Flame' which seems to be conjuring up their tenuous tribal links from the past, this song is just disappointing through and through, and only cements the opinion that Sepultura have this masochistic desire to hold onto musical style that never meshed effectively with their music and was popular if only for the drop-D and the gimmick nature of the entire thing. Sepultura is a band that I sympathise with heavily, and whilst this album certainly displays a few promising moments, no matter how simplistic and suspect they may be, there is always the future but it will only be successful if they turn their backs on the past.
Sepultura’s new album is definitely faster, thrashier and less bullshit than Nation, Although this is not an epic release or as heavy as Shovel Headed Kill Machine and Sodom and is really short, Dante XXI is still a sweet, fast album that is far superior than a lot of their recent work and other recent releases
The first intro track sets up for Dark Wood of Error, which I think is just a longer intro for the far better song Convicted in Life, the dominant drum introductions in both songs are cool and start the album off fast and heavy, the singing is pretty typical Sepultura and I fight it sounds a bit more like Cavalera than Green on Nation, with the exception that Green is now so much better than Cavalera ever was, and is. The vocals are far superior to those on Soulfly’s new album Dark Ages.
City of Dis is when the album slows down a little and the songs start taking on more complex, unique and interesting structure. This is still fast and thrashy, but it’s a whole lot more technical and experimental than the previous two tracks. I really like the sound of the bass drum on this track. False is another song with a slower intro, turning into good half-thrash, although it’s a little bit more of the same and therefore isn’t really memorable. Fighting On is a lot slower than the other tracks, and almost sounds heavier because of this, you really get to hear all the notes and the build-ups / changes.
Intro #2 and Ostia are two great tracks, the intro is spooky as hell and Ostia kicks in right after, although I believe the intro on the actual track could have been longer before Green started yelling. The middle instrumental section is by far the best part of this song, especially once Green ends it with his yell, that’s the type of thing you love playing for pussies who don’t appreciate metal, gets them every time and they whine.
Burried Worlds sounds like quite a bit like nu-metal, pretty weak track, but whatever, it’s not that bad. Following Burried Worlds is Nuclear Seven, I love the bass blast a la Corrupted, it’s the best song yet on the album apart from Ostia. Repeating the Horror is the track that strikes me the most as old school Sepultura on the album, a good fucking thrash song.
Another Intro and Crown and Miter, good songs, the intro really works for it. Simple, fast, no fucking about, this is where the album ends for me on most of my listens.
I don’t listen to the last two tracks much because when I’m listening to Dante XXI it means I’m not in the mood for something not too complicated, and that pretty much sums the album, simple, fast and thrashy. If you’re looking for something complicated to compete with Time Does Not Heal or even Shovel Headed Kill Machine, don’t look here, if you’re looking for an album that will assault you for 30 minutes, than this might just be for you.