Soulfly: Brute Force

It’s human nature to look for clues amongst the wreckage. Even for the most atheistic amongst us, there is a hardwired tendency to see significance in the most random aspects of our lives.

It is one of the few things that separates us from the animals; a need to impose order upon chaos. It is the evolutionary tool that has seen us ‘progress’ from sky-fearing monkey men into rapacious, planet destroying homo sapiens. This is why, when after we dream – essentially a series of random thoughts, images and sensations flying through our subconscious – and wake up, our brains rearrange this mosaic of psychedelic nonsense into a coherent plot.

Brazilian thrash metal hero Max Cavalera of Soulfly says that the idea for the artwork of Omen, Soulfly’s seventh album, featuring a sinister-looking cabal of kids in gas masks, came to him as a nocturnal revelation.

“I dreamt the artwork. It has really creepy, gas mask-wearing figures, each one holding something different… like a flaming skull or a pig…”

Metal artwork has a special significance that it does not have in other genres. If you look at the artwork to any indie album, what do you see? Four guys who look like Harry Potter in duffle coats, sitting in a café. If you look at the artwork to any R&B album, what do you see? Some dude with no belt who owes H Samuel a lot of money stood next to his jeep. Metal, however, is rich in symbolism drawn from world religion, science, history, the occult, politics and horror. The sleeve to your average metal album begs to be interpreted into an understandable narrative. The cover art to Reign In Blood puts a gun to your head and fucking demands it.

And when you know Max’s history, which has been chequered with tragedy and ill-fortune, one cannot help but look for the deeper story in his band’s visual identity. As we know, Max rose to fame as the frontman of Sepultura before splitting from the group – and for many years resisting contact with his brother, Seps drummer Iggor – after the tragic death of his stepson Dana Wells, and the release of seminal ‘world thrash’ album Roots. As he explains to Metal Hammer, he came pretty close to giving up at this point.

“During the split from Sepultura up until when I wrote Soulfly I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I took some time off but then this urge came over me and when I looked in the mirror it was like, ‘I’m still here. I’m still alive. I can still do this.’”

His new group helped Max to explore his burgeoning interest in combining world tribal music with extreme metal, but then disaster struck again in December 2004. Within two days of each other his eight-month-old grandson Moses and his old drinking buddy Dimebag died. His band entered their ‘Dark Ages’; the spirituality and musical experimentation began to wither on the vine.

Six years later, however, and Soulfly are back with their seventh album on Roadrunner, the fabulously stripped-down and furious Omen. And things, thankfully, appear to be mending. Perhaps it is important that Soulfly have recorded a seventh album, beating the six he recorded with Sepultura. And when you add that to the title and the album artwork that features ghostly-looking kids wearing gas masks and bearing arcane gifts, it raises questions. Is he a superstitious man?

Max Cavalera, a very friendly and funny bloke, whose chilled South American-accented English makes him sound uncannily like Cheech Marin from the Cheech And Chong films, laughs and shakes his head.

“The children each represent one of the seven deadly sins. That’s kind of the vibe we went for. Seven albums, seven sins, y’know?”

He is quick to point out, as a well-known believer in God but harsh critic of organised religion, that this doesn’t mean he’s going to Sunday school or anything.

“I think the seven deadly sins were invented by the church. They weren’t invented by God so I don’t give them too much credence.”

Many people will be pleased to know that Omen is the most straightforwardly brutal thrash/classic metal album he has been involved with for a while. And while the lyrical concerns are pretty gnarly (the death penalty, mass slaughter, Jeffrey Dahmer and world financial collapse), this is, of course totally positive in metal terms. Madness, mayhem and murder are staples of our cult and in this case reflect a newly invigorated joy at being in Soulfly, rather than a reflection of painful mourning and depressing times.

The album title came about in a random way that took him back some years as well.

“The title of the album came from a bit of spraypainting I saw on a wall when we were over in London. I thought, ‘That’s a great name for an album’. That’s how I got the name Refuse/Resist. I was in a subway in New York and I saw a black guy – he looked like a Black Panther [radical Afro American direct action group] – and he was wearing a jacket that had Refuse/Resist written on the back. It stuck with me.”

Times are obviously happier, as he is finding it easier to concentrate on the positive instead of the negative. When asked about his relationship with Dimebag, he recalls a happy few months he spent on tour in 1994 with Sepultura, Pantera and Prong.

“I still don’t know how nobody died from alcohol poisoning!” he laughs heartily. “Dimebag would always have a full bar going during the Pantera set. I always tell people that he actually had a bartender and not a roadie because most of the time this dude would just be on stage fixing people drinks. Occasionally he would give Dimebag a guitar so he could play the set but for the other 90 per cent of the time he would be mixing cocktails and handing them out! I don’t know how we didn’t all end up in hospital after that tour; it was crazy! It was really, really fun. That was the tour where Brazil won the World Cup, and after the final we took the tour bus to the stadium in California. And opening for Pantera at that show it just erupted into a half-hour drum set during the Sepultura set. I think we only played two songs and the rest was just a big drum session with flags and celebration and shit like that. All of Pantera were wearing Brazilian football tops and flags… it was really, really cool.”

This idea of heavy metal being one big family, a tribe of likeminded individuals, is obviously very close to his heart. Prong have recently just toured with Soulfly and Tommy Victor, their godlike rhythm guitarist frontman, adds a scorching vocal presence to Omen track Lethal Injection.

“Tommy is a great guy and a great guitar player. He is solid… simply amazing live. On tour I used to come down to watch them live and just be amazed at how solid he plays that shit live. We wrote the lyrics to Lethal Injection together. It’s about capital punishment, and lethal injection is the most widely used means of killing death row people in the States. I think it’s absurd the number of people they have on death row. It’s a really huge number and a lot of those cases, it turns out that the guy was innocent… after they’ve killed him. That is the system failing right there.”

As for the increased brutality of the sound, Max is combative.

“The spirituality stuff I’m taking a break from as well. I’m showing a different side. A heavier, more aggressive side. I don’t want to stop. Just because I’m getting older, what? I should stop or play slow? That’s fucking bullshit. It’s absolute bullshit. I don’t have to.

“The great thing about music and why I am making them heavier and more aggressive is that it is in direct relation to the crowd, not myself. Seeing that chaos of the crowd in front of me, that utter rebelliousness is what I love.”

And undoubtedly, adding immensely to this new feeling of positivity is the continuation and success of his side-project with his brother Iggor: “Right now it feels like Soulfly is my mission but I do have Cavalera Conspiracy on the side. We’re going into the studio next week to work on the next album [Blunt Force Trauma came out in 2011]. My creative mood is really good right now with all these projects going on but I feel that Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy are the projects with which I’m gonna be busy for the rest of my life.”

So no goat entrails need to be strewn across the floor, no arcane spells need to be cast and no clues interpreted to see that Max Cavalera’s future is once again bright.

This was first published in Metal Hammer issue 205.