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Pivotal Improvement and Rebirth for Sepultura - 93%

Chainedown, January 18th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2006, CD, Steamhammer (Digipak)

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.