Tuesday 13 September 2022

Soulfly - Totem (2022)

Country: USA
Style: Groove/Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
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While I was a big fan of early Sepultura with co-founder Max Cavalera, both the early death metal stuff and the later stuff that brought in tribal rhythms, I haven't been as fond of Soulfly, which he founded in 2007. Sure, they had an interesting genre-melding approach and they were far heavier than most of the alternative stuff I was hearing from the States at the time, but it didn't connect with me. Now, I haven't followed their career religiously, but I have heard a couple of albums and some odd other stuff here and there, enough to know that it just wasn't my sort of thing.

Maybe I should have kept listening, because this isn't what I remember at all. This is much heavier and often much faster, though there's still a strong focus on groove metal. The nu metal elements are gone, it seems, which I'm not upset about, and there are riffs that shift clearly from groove to thrash to death, which I'm also not upset about. It's an interesting mix and it's backed up by vocals that are definitely somewhere on that same road; they may be rooted in hardcore shouts but they don't feel remotely out of place on thrashy material and have a tinge of death growl to them too. I hear some Tom G. Warrior in that voice, especially on songs like Ecstasy of Gold. And all of this is a lot further up my alley than what I remember on earlier albums.

Of course, the tribal aspect is not neglected either and Cavalera's son Zyon is credited not only on drums but also Brazilian percussion. This is more overt on the later, more experimental tracks, but it's discernable on the storming opener, Superstition, and on others like Rot in Pain and Ancestors. I like this approach and, frankly I'd like to hear a lot more of it, but I'm hardly going to complain, as Soulfly are one of the few bands doing this at all. What's odd to me is how this doesn't particularly feel like folk metal at all, even though it kind of is because of that ethnic Brazilian sound.

Superstition is a blistering opener, more thrash than groove but the groove elements present add a bounce to it, so it feels upbeat as well as up tempo. It's over in three minutes and that's average here, if we factor out the five minute title track and the epic nine minute closer. That makes these songs all the more urgent, because they show up, do their thing and then vanish into oblivion (or a dead tone on The Damage Done), so another short, punchy song can do the same thing. I dig that a lot, even though it's clearly a punk influence and this is a lot more of a metal album.

Talking of The Damage Done, not everything here unfolds at a serious pace. The songs are always urgent and ready for the pit to respond, but this one focuses on that effect, its fundamental riff a perfect example of what a thrash band would call the mosh part of a song. Add the chanting vocal and the bouncy groove and the pit ought to love this one, but I dug the guitar solo just as much. It definitely counts as a song to feel as much as hear.

With a brief note to point out that the title track is longer and so has more opportunity for wilder, more interesting things to happen, that's a growing approach on the album's second half that the title track kicks off. Ancestors plays a lot with the Brazilian side of things and morphs into a sort of conversation with the spirits. Ecstasy of Gold is my favourite short song here, not least because of the repetition at the end of lines, something that's there from Superstition onwards but finds its greatest effect here. Soulfly XII is an interesting instrumental built around what could have been a thrash metal intro, but deepened with world and electronic sounds.

And that leaves the closer, Spirit Animal, which is particularly fascinating. It kicks off riddled with spooky effects, like a Hallowe'en ride, then finds a groove metal riff to ground it, adds a chant to colour it and only gets more inventive from there. By the seven minute mark, it's unmistakably a prog rock song, atmospheric and imaginative and we start to wonder about the instruments that we hear. Was that a saxophone? Certainly horns of some description. What's being done over the clean vocals? Are those layered effects in post or some sort of filter? Something, I'm sure.

I've listened to this a lot today, partly because it connected with me and I'm not used to that from Soulfly but partly because it's really interesting material. The first five tracks are worthy of a 7/10 but the second five are even better and I don't think an 8/10 would be unfair. As the latter amount to a lot more minutes than the former, I think that balances a 7.5/10 upwards. This may become as low on my highly recommended list as anything gets this year, just squeezing on as a rounding up but I do think it deserves to be on there. That surprises me but it is what it is. Now, what else have I been missing out on by Soulfly? I'm seeing suggestions that they ditched nu metal a while back.

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