Truth be told, I originally jumped the Sepultura ship when they shifted from the vicious deathrash of Beneath the Remains and Arise to the groove metal sound they shifted to on Chaos AD. I really hadn’t paid any attention to them at all until just recently; I assumed they were still mired in groove metal adequacy. On that note, Sepultura’s thirteenth album, The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must be the Heart (heretofore known as TMBHAHMBTH or Mediator), is partially successful: they have gone back to their thrash roots, finally, yet the results aren’t quite as hoped.
The riffs on this album are absolutely fantastic, and could easily stand defiantly with some of their classics, especially on ragers like “The Vatican”. The drums provide a punishing and pummeling backbone to such songs as opener “Trauma of War” as well, providing an overall greatly improved and thoroughly reformed instrumental component to Sepultura’s sound. Stylistically, these guys have finally found their sweet spot, and have finally begun to recover from the deathblow of losing the Cavaleras dealt them.
The thing is, two vital elements completely kill what could have been their comeback record: the production and the vocals. Ross Robinson has long been a producer of very mainstream metal bands, in the sense that he can normally get a high-fidelity sound out of the bands he works with, even if not all of his produced albums end up good compositionally. Working with a band with the name recognition of Sepultura, you would think he could give them a guitar tone capable of leveling buildings, drum tone capable of nuclear decimation, and vocals to strip paint off the walls, regardless of the songs themselves. Instead, he leaves the band sounding like it was recorded on a potato. Not a nice baked potato with cheese and sour cream, mind you, but a potato left out for decades until its golden goodness now resembles a McDonald’s dumpster. It’s as if he thought he was recording a Burzum album instead of a thrash album, completely castrating the possible power of the magnificent riffs the band writes on Mediator. One of the appeals of the re-thrash movement, for me at least, has been its updating of old-school thrash with new audio technology that allows each riff, each blast, each scream to sound massive, and inspire the hyperbole that many writers, such as I, tend to exclaim in. By regressing audio technology so far as to sound like their mid-80s days, Sepultura manages to take any balls they could have had out of the equation, and kill any sonic power of their music. Instead of being a headbang-able, solid record, it merely sounds like some old, rather flaccid thrash, with some tribal accents and subtle groove metal elements.
The other Achilles heel for TMBHAHMBTH is the vocals. Even when you attempt to mentally pull the vocals out from the corrosive film of the disappointing production value, they merely warrant an emphatic “meh”. In a lot of thrash bands, what separates one from the other is the vocal timbre. It’s how even an outsider might distinguish Death Angel from Metallica from Havok from Municipal Waste most eminently. And one of Sepultura’s major strengths on classics like BTR and Arise were the immediately recognizable, and suitably vicious, vocals of Max Cavalera. Now, that option is pretty clearly well off the table. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t still get a vocalist who could stand out from the thrash pack, someone who could define the Sepultura sound of the future. Granted, this entire conundrum might simply be an issue irreparably confounded with Robinson’s hack job production, so I won’t offer any true final judgment on this tenet just yet.
Despite these mistakes and imperfections, the band still shows immense promise for the future. The aforementioned killer riffs of “The Vatican”, “Trauma of War”, “The Age of the Atheist”, and really the majority of these tracks, along with stellar solos such as that in “The Bliss of Ignorants”, demonstrate that Sepultura is still capable of thrashing the flesh off your bones, even 30 years in. And the problems I mentioned are really one album fixes. So, though I didn’t dig this one, Sepultura have managed to get back on my radar, as they should be on yours, and I will be patiently awaiting their next (hopefully professionally recorded) album.
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