A-LEX: A MIXED BAG FOR THE FIRST POST-CAVALERA SEPULTURA ALBUM
In my review for AC/DC’s Black Ice, I wrote about how certain trademarks of an artist or band – Michael Jackson’s falsetto, Axl Rose’s gravelly throat, Angus Young’s dirty blues rock pecking – suck me in immediately, even despite their use for blatantly nostalgic purposes. The punch in the gut of Andreas Kisser’s muddy-but-monolithic power chords at the beginning of “A-Lex I,” the opening track on Sepultura’s eleventh album, A-Lex, pull me right back to being seventeen and getting lost in the ridiculous grooves of the band’s punk/thrash classic, Chaos A.D. Of course, when making this comparison, I meant it positively toward Black Ice. And though A-Lex doesn’t necessarily suckle at the leathery teat of nostalgia, it doesn’t lift off in the way the intro track implies. Though the album is packed with primo Sepulturaness, it’s also packed with directionless filler, bloating it from a tight groove metal record to an overly/questionably ambitious record that’s practically impossible to get through in one sitting. Their lack of self-editing ultimately mars the record, but the bits of it that are good – and don’t let my misgivings fool you, because there’s quite a bit that’s pretty fucking good – make you glad they’re still here, even if they are completely without the Cavalera brothers for the first time since the band’s inception.
I take such umbrage with the album’s excessive length because there is a compact little album somewhere in there here with interesting possibilities. I must confess that I have not kept up with Sepultura since Roots, and have heard that I haven’t been missing much until their last album, Dante XXI. Though this ignorance may be inexcusable to the band’s devout followers (and probably to those who think I’m underprepared for this review), I found the contrast between Max Cavalera’s growl and Derrick Green’s hardcore bark stunning. While I miss Max’s fragile grip on the English language and disdain some of Green’s decisions vocally (the album’s confusing epic “Sadistic Values” features some ill-advised clean singing) and lyrically (“Death is a part of life/ As peace is a part of war” is a much less profound statement than Green may have intended it to be), he fits in well with the band, dragging its hardcore roots to the surface in a way Cavalera never could. On A-Lex, the bedreaded Cavalera brother is neither missed nor loathed; vocally, it’s an even trade.
The good on the album is top shelf. “Filthy Rot” is a tribal metal number that hearkens back to the glory days when that sort of thing wasn’t exploited by the Dave Draimans of the world. “Forceful Behavior” features a shuddering guitar part over a deep groove that morphs into a blatant Slayer homage, and then jumps back and forth between the two for the remainder of the song. “Strike” and “The Treatment” are returns to early 90s Sepultura, but manage not to sound like hollow retreads. Even the album’s weirder tracks succeed in their own way: the aforementioned “Sadistic Values” manages to almost redeem itself after its shaky first half, and “Ludwig Van” is a ridiculous interpretation of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, though it manages to take residence in the sweet, sweet middle ground between cheesiness and irony (the song is seemingly tackles this with a full orchestra, and manages to balance the band and its counterpart surprisingly well). In spots, Sepultura prove themselves to be still relevant, and still capable of composing material that stands up with their unimpeachable back catalog.
Of course, this would make A-Lex a fucking juggernaut were there not so much crap. While the good tracks border on transcendent, the dull and near-unlistenable ones (most notably “Conform”) remind one of how much nu-metal owed to Sepultura at their worst; moments like this test the patience to a dangerous degree. The album is based on A Clockwork Orange, both Anthony Burgess’ book and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, and nods to it both lyrically (most blatantly on “What I Do!”) and musically (from the cheesy synths on the four “A-Lex” interludes to, obviously, “Ludwig Van”), and it’s here that the album falters. The band cram in too much to further their point, despite the fact that it’s probably one of the less pretentious and less terrible ideas for a concept album.
The record ends with a standard issue slice of d-beat hardcore after two wildly experimental tracks, showcasing the band’s skewed and sloppy ambitions. However, for its numerous and ultimately fatal faults, A-Lex displays a Sepultura still very much in the game, and even without Igor and Max Cavalera, they’re still capable of making weird, inventive metal.
(3 out of 5 horns)