Sometimes, a song embodies a mode of spirit. Rather than just tell a story or express emotions surrounding an event, it captures the essence of a way that people feel. These songs are immortal, perfect distillations of a feeling we all know and that we’ll feel again. And when events conspire to reignite that specific fire, the song is waiting, and sounds as good as it did the first time it fanned the flames.
Such a song is “Refuse/Resist,” the opening track of Sepultura’s 1993 album Chaos A.D. The track sounds like furious revolution, the hand at your back that shoves you screaming into the streets because you have every right to be angry at the bastards ruining the world. And while not every one matches the power of the album’s opener Chaos A.D. is a collection of songs like that, thematically radicalized and sonically innovative. And today, in 2020, as the world swirls into madness and average Americans are fighting in the streets against agents of a system they feel has failed them, it is in both subject matter and style as relevant today as it has ever been.
A little bit of history helps us understand Chaos A.D.’s staying power. By ‘93, Sepultura had become one of the more interesting and punishing life forms on the musical planet, the harsh foreign racket to Pantera’s American-south groove. With 1989’s Beneath The Remains and 1991’s Arise, the band had proved themselves able to bridge the gap between thrash and death metal in a way that both underground fans and average rockers with an edge could enjoy. But the vibe was changing in ‘93, with the groove and ooze of acts like White Zombie and Enforcer seeping their way into the band’s acid-blooded worship of Destruction and Celtic Frost.
The mixture of these elements — the stark darkness of the underground and the bounce-and-growl of modern metal — merged into something uniquely compelling for Sepultura. While a song like “Arise” paints the world as a scorched-earth apocalypse that made sense behind the gasmasked Jesus of its video, tracks like “Territory,” “Slave New World,” and the totally crushing “Propaganda” felt inherently tied to trials of the individual, their thick, chuggins riffs and pounding drums more appropriate against lyrics about the harrowing experiences of living in a third-world country or in the middle of a war zone.
The drumming on Chaos A.D. is important. The slower, reverb-heavy drums of Iggor Cavalera lend this album the atmosphere that would eventually define Sepultura’s “tribal” sound (a term that is now frowned upon due to the imperialist connotations that come with it, but one that was defining for the band). With that, the record’s percussions are also one of the more important ways that Sepultura began to influence nu-metal. Their thrash material had the rapid-fire of their speed metal idols, but here, the band’s rhythms sounded as though they were tapped out by the fingers of a giant, informing the primal beats of bands like Korn and Slipknot.
One way in which Chaos A.D. feels fresh and important today is how the world’s regard for nu-metal has recently shifted. Ask to hear some nu-metal at Duff’s in 2006 and you’d get booted out of the bar; today, bands like Code Orange, Vein, and Tallah are reminding the world why that genre mattered by interpreting its pendulous heaviness through their own seething, more-brutal-than-thou takes. One can hear the direct correlation between the tooth-chipping impact of “Amen” and a band like Orthodox or Great American Ghost.
But more importantly, it’s Chaos A.D.’s morale that feels as though the album were written for 2020. Right now, the world is living through history, with fear, anger, and rebellion exploding out of everyday people on a scale most would’ve declared impossible five years ago. And though lots of metal bands had a grip on these concepts, few had the tangible experience of Sepultura. Growing up in Brazil, the band members knew a thing or two about organized kidnappings and getting their asses kicked by corrupt cops. For those today living in the grips of a disease with a six-figure death toll, and especially for Americans whose protests against police racism are being met with their first taste of tear gas and rubber bullets, the honesty behind “Refuse/Resist” is suddenly all too real.
None of us could have possibly predicted COVID-19; the racially-charged protests against the police gripping American; or the pouting, jackbooted administration of a corporate overlord president — but listen to this album, and you can’t help but wonder if Sepultura knew this brave new world was just around the corner. Thankfully, Chaos A.D. will always be there, a tireless monument to that moment where push comes to shove comes to march. While everyone only hope the madness of 2020 slows down even slightly, one can be comforted knowing that there’s an album every bit as incendiary as the world is right now.
Words by Chris Krovatin