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Soul Survivor

With Soulfly, Max Cavalera continues to document all sides of human behavior.


For fifteen years, Max Cavalera uncorked gravelly shouts and played precisely destructive riffs for Sepultura, a band whose name is the Portuguese word for "grave." The group's moniker became all too appropriate when it fired Cavalera in 1996 after a management dispute and watched its artistic vision and career decompose. While Sepultura's Against, fronted by new singer Derrick Green, absorbed harsh reviews and inspired apathy in longtime fans, Cavalera's debut with his group Soulfly redefined his signature sound and sold twice as well as his old band's attempt at a record without him.

Both of Cavalera's outfits fuse bludgeoning metal with Brazilian percussion and indigenous music, then pair the emphatic bursts of noise with Cavalera's sharp observations about corrupt governments, abuse of power and man's inhumanity to man. But while such Sepultura classics as Roots and Chaos A.D. focused nearly exclusively on negative themes, Soulfly marks Cavalera's attempt to use his rage in a positive manner.

"The only thing that's different is that it's a little more spiritual," Cavalera says. "It's a continuation of my work. It's spiteful and spiritual, ugly and beautiful, fucked-up and cool."

Fittingly enough for an artist who thrives on duality, Cavalera tends to collaborate with other artists on his projects. Sepultura recorded songs with Faith No More/Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton and Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, while Soulfly's 1998 self-titled debut offered cameos from Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, the Deftones' Chino Moreno, and members of Fear Factory and Cypress Hill. Soulfly's 2000 album, Primitive, features Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Tom Araya of Slayer and Moreno again. Perhaps the most unexpected and impressive contribution comes from eclectic songwriter Sean (son of John) Lennon, who teams with Cavalera on the standout track "Son Song."

"We both grew up fatherless, but we felt the presence of our fathers around us spiritually and musically," Cavalera says. "I wanted to do something that mixed melody and heavy stuff, but in a cool way. I wanted the song to be not wimpy but meaningful and spiritual. I like to experiment with music. I'm always looking for that collaboration that's going to surprise the world."

While it might not have seemed earth-shaking at the time of its release, Cavalera's collaboration with the Deftones for the 1997 tune "Headup" gave his new group its name and its purpose. The song, which appears on the Deftones' Around the Fur, takes its name from the line I got to keep my head up, which appeared in Cavalera's stepson Dana Wells' diary. Wells was killed in a car wreck that Cavalera believes was no accident, and Wells' death deepened the depression into which Cavalera had fallen after being forced out of Sepultura.

Cavalera decided to pay tribute to his stepson by writing a song with his (and Wells') friends in the Deftones. During "Headup," Cavalera screams Soulfly/fly high, words that popped into his head weeks later when he was searching for a name for his newly formed band. "I went through a thousand names before I saw that it was already there," he says.

Live, Soulfly improvises to fill the void left by absent guest stars, bringing fans or members of the opening band onstage to sing. However, the highlight of every Soulfly show is its massive drum circle, which might sound like hippie crap on paper but manages to be both heavy as hell and strangely calming in practice.

"It's powerful as fuck," Cavalera says. "It's becoming a trademark of the band. It's like thunder."

Bassist Marcelo D. Rapp offers a link to Cavalera's past -- he was formerly a roadie for Sepultura. The rest of Soulfly has a new look, with Joe Nunez replacing a drummer who left for Ozzy Osbourne's backing band and former Snot guitarist Mikey Doling stepping in for two departed axmen.

It's a testament to the vision and craft of Soulfly that despite a wide variety of approaches and guest singers, Primitive never feels like a half-baked attempt to gain attention through the use of marquee names. Instead, it's the sound of one of heavy metal's most notoriously restless creators getting better, smarter and more optimistic with age.

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