Soulfly – ‘TOTEM’

By Ian Kenworthy

You’ve heard the story of Alexander the Great, how saw everything he had achieved and wept because there were no more worlds to conquer; that’s how Max Cavalera must feel. Having redefined thrash, reshaped nu-metal, formed side-projects, fronted supergroups and worked with practically everyone under the sun there doesn’t seem to be anything for him left to do, except weep, or create more.

You can’t deny Cavalera is a prolific artist and since leaving Sepultura back in 1997 Soulfly has been his main project. ‘Totem’ is their twelfth full-length so keeping it fresh isn’t an easy task. As the band’s only consistent member his skills literally define the sound; give Cavalera a guitar and he’ll lay down big, chunky thrash riffs. It’s a sound he’s so committed to he only bothers stringing his guitar with the four bass strings. He knows where his strengths lie, you know what you’re getting but there’s always something else on offer.

Collaboration is Soulfly’s secret, each release welcoming different musicians and the results can be quite varied. You can also see that, in many ways, this makes it a strange project. This time the line-up features Max, his son Zyon on drums and bassist Mike Leon with Arthur Rizk handling co-production duties and lead guitar. With songwriting mainly credited to Max and Zyon it means that although the band has roots in nu-metal and progressed to an inventive thrash hybrid it has somehow ended up as a father-son bonding exercise. However this isn’t a problem, the current iteration works well together and the songs feel novel, especially once they throw in a handful of guest vocalists to mix things up.

Let’s get this out of the way; The first thing you’ll notice, and probably never stop noticing, is the album’s vocal production. Cavalera’s voice is bathed in reverb and it isn’t exactly endearing. Every time he opens his mouth it echoes in a way that will have you checking the speakers to ensure they’re not broken. Get past this obstacle though and you’ll have a much better time with the record; but it’s a horrible choice, especially on such an intense album. If your whole schtick is aggression surely you should sound aggressive? That said, the underlying music feels pleasingly chunky and the syncopated rhythms hit the sweet spot between gritty and slick. Notably ‘Scouring The Vile’ and ‘Rot In Pain’ thrash as hard as anything the band has put its name to and the title track in particular has a huge chugging breakdown that seems particularly inspired and sounds massive.

Often Soulfly albums are like reaching into a bran tub; beneath the surface, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. This time it’s pretty straightforward and a far cry from the band’s weirdly inventive early records. In many ways it seems like they’re following the same formula as 2018’s ‘Ritual’ which isn’t a bad move as that record was straight to the point; no weird nu-metal leanings, no peculiar cover versions or genre mash-ups, just solid songs. This is a blessing and a curse. Firstly, because it’s a great sound and of all the variations on their basic formula it feels the most assured. Secondly, Zyon’s drumming really suits the approach, it’s intense when it needs to be but varied enough to give the record a certain dynamism. Compare to that on 2015’s ‘Archangel’ for example and its far groovier and less reliant on double bass pedal intensity, illustrating his growth as a musician. You’ll find some really interesting drumming on ‘Ancestors’ and he even throws in fantastic little rolls on ‘Superstition’ – however it is a little worrying when the bit that sticks in your mind is the few seconds of tribal drumming at the start of the record.

You can’t accuse ‘Totem’ of being the band’s most adventurous album, but it isn’t on autopilot either and even their comfort zone contains some real bangers. The smooth chugging on ‘Filth Upon Filth’ really hits home and its lead guitar lines are impressively stylish. Both ‘The Damage Done’ and ‘Ecstasy Of Gold’ work hard to raise the album’s cool riff quota and are quite memorable as a result. The title track is also a standout. Better still, because each song contains its own little spark the album as a whole feels focused and never becomes an ordeal like 2013’s ‘Savages’. However you do notice the absence of former lead guitarist Marc Rizzo, whose wild solos characterised many of the band’s previous offerings. While Rizk adds his fair share of whammy bar and wah-based noodling, it doesn’t lift the album in the same way.

For the most part it’s a solid, thrash-based journey, and by the time the instrumental ‘Soulfly XII’ rolls around you’ll be glad of the respite. It makes for an interesting interlude, but isn’t one of the band’s finest. With the momentum broken there is space for the experimental ‘Spirit Animal’ to close out the record. Sure, it might start in the same vein as the other songs but soon fades into drum-loops and delayed guitars, it’s surprising for sure and when combined with the guest vocal and nine-minute run-time makes for a satisfying climax.

Given Cavalera’s regular, consistent output over numerous projects you start to wonder what the album is about. After all, if he spends so much of his life recording, the songs can’t possibly be about much else; no one’s life is that exciting, especially not as his age. This isn’t a problem when he’s making abstract statements or  – heck – even just yelling a list of big words, but this time it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s driving it. As he describes songwriting as creating ‘lyrical terrorism’ it’s clear he doesn’t take himself too seriously – and remember he’s also responsible for the wonderfully dumb-sounding 2000 single ‘Jumpdafuckup’ – but even then he’s usually incorporating a political slant and that isn’t as obvious here. Sure there are references to god, and iconography, but the album as a whole feels curiously empty. He explains that this is a record about the “joy, the fun, and the anger in Metal,” and clearly this ties into the idea of a ‘Totem’ as a spiritual object or a place to worship metal. That’s a great hook for and it’s a shame they didn’t explore it further. Still, in effect what you get is an album that’s big, sturdy and resembles your god.

Brisk and straightforward, ‘Totem’ sees Soulfly taking few chances. Despite some questionable production choices it’s hard, it’s heavy, and is better than most of their imitators, but it’s also the sound of a band just doing their thing; ‘Totem’ is fine, nothing more.

IAN KENWORTHY

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