It might seem like a long time ago now, but there was a moment in the mid-90s where it genuinely looked like Sepultura might be about to become the next big crossover metal band. Their trajectory from underground thrash to grimy death to hulking groove metal and, finally, embracing the zeitgeist of bouncy nu metal had seen the Brazilian band achieve chart success that had only been bettered by a small handful of high-profile peers at that point: the likes of Metallica, Pantera, Slayer and Megadeth.
Tragically, it didn’t happen. Instead, from the rubble of the band he created in Belo Horizonte in the early 80s, through death, depression and desperation, Max Cavalera fought back, with plenty of help from some of metal’s biggest names, to create his most personal album.
In the aftermath of 1996’s hugely successful Roots record, Sepultura were booked to play Donington Park’s annual Monsters of Rock Festival, with only Ozzy and Kiss keeping them from the top of the bill. It should have been a coronation; instead it ended up being one of the most tragic days of their career and would ultimately act as the tinder for the end of the band as we knew it.
The day before the show, Dana Wells, Max ’s stepson, the son of his wife and Seps manager Gloria Cavalera, tragically lost his life in a traffic collision. The 21-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene at 2.07am on the 16th of August. The news was broken to the Cavaleras as they touched down in London the day before the Monsters of Rock show; both immediately turned around and stepped back onto a plane heading to Phoenix, leaving the rest of Sepultura to perform the biggest show of their career without their iconic frontman.
“It was such a torture going back,” Max told Kerrang! in 1998. “Knowing what we were coming back to. It was a nightmare.”
Nightmare it may have been, but this event appeared to cause a rift between Max and Gloria and the rest of the band. On December 16 1996, the classic line-up of Sepultura played their final show at London’s Brixton Academy, with Gloria being informed that she was to be relived of her duties as the group's manager by the other three members immediately after the band had stepped offstage.
In the same Kerrang! interview, Max said that “it wasn’t Sepultura anymore, so what was the point of staying? It was a bunch of shit and a bunch of lies.”
The aftermath was ugly, with Max, true to his word, supporting his wife by removing himself from the band. An unsettling war of words was played out in the rock press over the next few months, and then, suddenly, there was silence. The most promising metal band of the mid-90s seemingly just imploded and vanished.
None of us knew it at the time, but Max was in a bad way. “I was angry about Dana, angry about Sepultura,” he told Metal Hammer in 2019. “I’d been living in a dark room drinking and taking drugs and I was done with music. My heart was too broken to think about it – I just told everyone to fuck off, that I just wanted to get drunk. If it wasn’t for Deftones, I don’t know what I would have done...”
Indeed, the first steps back to recovery that Cavalera took was to accept an invitation from Deftones to appear on a new song on the Sacramento band's forthcoming second album Around the Fur, in 1997. “We decided before we did the song what it would be about, and I think we’re going to dedicate the song to Dana,” Deftones frontman Chino Moreno told Metal Hammer that year. “We’re both singing on the song, we kinda switch off lines, answering, yelling back at each other. It was intense in the studio, just the aura that was in there was beautiful.”
The song was Headup, a highlight of the ‘Tones superb breakthrough album. Much of the excitement in the buildup to the record's release centered around the return of Max, and the song eventually gave Max both the confidence to form a new band, and a name for it as well. The chorus of the song featured Cavalera screaming it: “Soulfly!”.
Buoyed by the positive experience of working with Deftones, Cavalera recruited aforementioned bassist Dias, guitarist Jackson Bandeira and drummer Roy Mayorga and began to dig deep inside himself to create the most personal set of songs of his career.
Max’s new crew entered Roots producer Ross Robinson’s Indigo Studios in early 1998 to record Soulfly’s self-titled debut album. The songs Cavalera wrote were driven by the pain and frustration that he had been feeling for the past 18 months, while also leaning in on the progress he as an artist had made during the Roots sessions. But there was still an extra ingredient that Max wanted: to expand on the collaborative process even further than any metal record had attempted until that point.
Max was one of the most respected figures in metal, and so it made sense that the cream of the rock and metal scene of the time wanted to come onboard and be part of the album. Even so, the list of contributors to Soulfly still looks unbelievably impressive today: Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst and DJ Lethal, Deftones' Chino Moreno, Dub War and future Skindred frontman Benji Webbe, Burton C Bell, Dino Cazares and Christian Olde Wolbers of Fear Factory, Cypress Hill man Eric Bobo and Logan Mader of Machine Head (who would later join the band as a touring guitarist) all lent their talents, alongside a group of prominent Brazilian musicians.
Though commonplace in other genres such as in hip-hop, no one in metal had ever assembled such a cast of feature performers on one album. It gave Soulfly another extra flavour that added to the intrigue: how exactly was this going to work?
We found out on April 21 1998, when Max Cavalera returned to the spotlight and Soulfly was released. The excitement that surrounded the second coming of one of metal’s most beloved characters, and his high-profile supporting cast, was palpable. The album peaked at number 79 in the US Billboard top 200, eventually going Gold after surpassing sales of over 500,000, and scored a hugely impressive Top 20 placing in the UK, reaching number 16.
Going back to Soulfly a quarter of a century after its release, it is still a fantastic listen. Merging gargantuan grooves spat at you from crusty, downtuned guitars, brilliantly catchy Latin rhythms, further expansion of the World Metal ideas born from Roots and Max’s sandblasted belch, it’s familiar but still tonally and emotionally different to anything Cavalera had released before. The guests also play a huge part in the album; Fred Durst never again sounded as angry as he does on first single Bleed, Burton C Bell’s bark adds an extra layer of brutality to opener Eye For An Eye, and First Commandment is another great Chino and Max team-up. The Gold medal for guests on the record, however, is definitely Benji Webbe, scatting and crooning his way through the soul-thrash of Prejudice.
Ultimately, of course, Max is the focus and the star of Soulfly. He’d never sounded so furious, so impassioned and so charged as he does on songs like No or No Hope = No Fear. The aforementioned Bleed, which became the definitive song on the album, features a video that retells the evening of Wells’ death, which Max described as being “like primal rage”. Even after the passing of so much time, you can still hear the unhinged fury in a song still deservedly considered an anthem of the era.
Soulfly soon began to tour the album, a hugely successful set of UK dates culminating in one of the finest metal shows of the decade in the capital, as Max and co. brought highly tipped post-grungers Cold and Limp Bizkit, right before they broke the mainstream, as support at London’s Astoria Theatre on May 19, 1998. Both Durst and Webbe joined the band onstage to run through their contributions to the album, and Max pulled out some Sepultura classics like Roots Bloody Roots, Refuse/Resist and Dead Embryonic Cells alongside the best bits of Soulfly to the delight of everyone present. It was spectacular.
Then followed it up with another fantastic performance at the inaugural UK Ozzfest at the Milton Keynes Bowl on June 20. Max was well and truly back, and he’s never looked back since.
Soulfly have gone on to become one of the most brilliantly consistent metal bands of the last thirty years, dabbling in all manner of sounds from the past and evolving way beyond the place from where they started. Had it not been for the desire and resilience of their frontman in the face of such anguish, we might never had heard from them at all.
When asked by Kerrang! what made him pick himself up after such challenges, Max told them simply: “I dunno man, belief. You have to believe in something. If you don’t, what are you gonna do? I believe in the name, the mood and the music. This is all I have, it’s everything to me.”