As is the case with most long-running metal acts with a discography of significant length, I’ve found that Sepultura have had many hits and misses throughout their career and I often find that when they release a new record, the extent to which I enjoyed the proceeding record seems to have no bearing on the level of enjoyment I get from its successor. As a result, I had no reason to go into this new release from Sepultura with any expectations whatsoever; positive or negative. Well, I would have had no reason to go into Machine Messiah with any expectations if it weren’t for the fact that this release is the band’s first with the help of Swedish record producer Jens Bogren, who has made a name for himself through his collaborations with such metal powerhouses as Opeth, Katatonia, Moonspell and more. I must say that having Bogren behind the desk was at the very least intriguing to me and, if I’m perfectly honest, the idea raised my hopes for this record being one of the better records in Sepultura’s recent back-catalogue, and I’m happy to report that I feel that this is the case.
Machine Messiah marks an increased use of different sounds and influences for the band, and the record is better for it. This is made clear from the self-titled intro track, which kicks the album off nicely. The clean, chorus guitar that opens the track would not sound out of place on a classic Metallica song and when the rest of the band comes in, the influence from progressive rock and metal acts that appeared on Sepultura’s last handful of releases shows up once again. With frontman Derrick Green’s harmonised vocals, there seems to be a new vitality to Sepultura’s sound, and this is largely a result of Bogren’s colourful production. To save you all from hearing me continuously repeat myself, I should say now that the production on this whole record is absolutely fantastic. Bogren demonstrates a great understanding of what the band are trying to do on this record and gives them the palette they need to do it. His production is bright and vibrant at points, and completely crushing at other points, all of which is in keeping with the different sounds that Sepultura seem to be hoping to achieve on this project, and I think that shows on the title track. The last passage of this song features some fantastic groovy riffage that has come to be a staple of Sepultura’s work, and Green’s yelled vocals are aggressive but well-controlled and pair well with the trudging guitars and drums.
Machine Messiah leads mercilessly into I Am the Enemy, a short, sweet and straightforward thrash track that provides some much-needed ceaseless speed following the slower pace introductory track. This cut even has a bit of a grindcore feeling to it, particularly with the crazy drumming on the chorus and a guttural vocal performance from Green that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nails record. The breakdown provides a nice head-bobbing breather before bursting into a second guitar solo. Despite this song blistering by in a matter of two and a half minutes, it’s a rather thoroughly-written track with a lot to it and stands out to me as a highlight on the record, despite most songs on this thing exceeding four minutes and seeming more substantial on the surface. Silent Violence and Vandals Nest are two similarly hard-hitting tracks that appear on the backend of this record. Silent Violence boasts many a compelling riff and some great mosh-friendly moments. Vandals Nest is perhaps the most barefaced thrash song on the record, featuring great fast-picking riffs and a straightforward bridge with some more of Green’s clean vocals that go down well.
Phantom Self is another track that stands out, mainly for being a melting pot of a plethora of interesting sounds and styles. The drumbeat that kicks the track off seems to be based on traditional maracatu rhythms, which isn’t all that surprising given the band’s home nation of Brazil. The drumming alone on this track demonstrates a clear diversity in influence, borrowing not just from samba drumming, but also syncopation that is reminiscent of a jazz style, which is of course all tied together with the aggression one would expect from the drumming on a groove metal album. The Tunisian-influenced violins on Phantom Self work oddly well and give the track an unequivocally unique flavour. It’s clear that this song wasn’t written as a guitar, bass, drum and vocal piece with these violins simply plopped on top as an afterthought. The extent to which the guitars and violins work with, and not against, one another demonstrates that this song was composed with a clear idea and awareness of how the inclusion of such a niche style of string arrangement should work with metal instrumentation. Many other points on the record highlight a clear diversity in inspiration for the band on this album. For instance, the off-kilter timing on Alethea is reminiscent of some of the more technical branches of metal, whilst the orchestral accompaniment on Sworn Oath feels like Sepultura’s attempt at creating a symphonic metal epic. As it happens, I feel that the latter track could have been stronger in how it progressed as a composition and in how Green’s yelled vocals were incorporated, but it’s nonetheless an interesting moment in the tracklisting.
Being the only instrumental track, Iceberg Dances was bound to stick out amongst the other tracks on Machine Messiah, but it just so happens to be one of the strongest musical moments on the record too. Instrumental tracks are nothing new to Sepultura, and their experience composing sans vocals is perhaps a contributing factor as to why this instrumental turned out so good. Again, many stylistic worlds collide on this track whilst the composition takes many unpredictable and indulgent detours. On the surface, it feels like a marrying of classical metal with some more modern progressive rock and metal elements. Additionally, those traditional Brazilian rhythms appear once again here, and the use of classic acoustic guitar in the middle of this song reinforces the band’s appreciation for traditional music.
Overall, Machine Messiah feels like a strong point in Sepultura’s career. The spotless production thanks to Bogren’s wizardry at the desk seems to have really facilitated the experimentation that the band wanted to pursue on this record, and the myriad stylistic influences work well with Sepultura’s usual compositional technique. Whilst not a perfect record, Machine Messiah has a lot of grand features and small details to offer, which warrants many re-listens from those willing to hear out these ideas. This is certainly going down as a highlight in metal music for me this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it grows on me a bit more as the year goes on.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10