How do you get a song to sound like ‘Arise’, the title track of Sepultura’s 4th studio album, and the one that really put them on the map globally as a thrash metal band to be reckoned with?
The speed, aggression and precision of the song make the song stand out as a masterpiece even over 30 years after it was first recorded. The Hawk wanted to know more – so if you’re curious too, let’s dig into it together.
So, how do you get to sound like that? Well, it sure helps if you have an upbringing like the Cavalera brothers, Igor and Max, who were the founders of Sepultura on drums and guitar / vocals respectively. As kids, the Cavaleras looked like they would be comfortably off – their mother Vania was a model and their father Graziano was an Italian diplomat, working at the Italian consulate in Belo Horizone, Brazil.
(Max Cavalera’s full name is Massimiliano Antonio Cavalera, so there’s that Italian in him).
Anyway, the family’s outlook changed in an instant when Graziano died of a heart attack in the 1970s when Max was only 9 years old. It left the surviving members staring at financial ruin, and a great deal of turbulence followed.
The brothers were distraught anyway about their father’s sudden death, and like many f***ed up kids around the world, they found some solace in the world of heavy metal music. They happened to be listening to Black Sabbath’s classic (and for the time very heavy ‘Vol 4’) on the very day of the tragedy, and never looked back.
And when they formed Sepultura a few years later in 1984 when Max was still only 15, they named the band after the Portuguese word for grave – that family tragedy still looming large over him. He knew it was the word for grave because he’d got hold of a copy of Motorhead’s ‘Dancing on your Grave’ and translated the lyrics – the means by which he learned all his English in those early days.
They hung out in record shops to expand their influences, which started out being the usual crew of Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Ozzy et al, but then took a turn for the heavy / extreme end of the market when they discovered Venom for the first time.
It’s surprising how influential Venom were in the evolution of thrash in that early and mid- 1980s period. They never hit the very highest heights themselves, but helped others to do so. For instance, they were a massive influence on Metallica, even playing early shows with them.
And it was the same for Sepultura. Upon hearing this style, then knew immediately what they needed to do, and started listening to other extreme bands of the same era – Slayer, Kreator, Exodus – whilst also moving their own band in the same direction.
I remember the first time I listened to Venom, it was on a friend’s borrowed tape. It was similar to Motörhead, only a lot heavier. I remember someone saying: it’s the devil’s Motörhead! After we got acquainted with Venom, we stopped listening to Iron Maiden and all that lighter stuff.Igor Cavalera
Down and Out Lifestyle
They dropped out of school and started to perform shows, duly settling into the lifestyle of an impoverished heavy metal band.
Traveling on trains. Getting beat up by cops. Sleeping behind the stage. It’s part of growing up. It’s part of the nature of this stuff. If you don’t have that kind of background, you can’t be a band like us.Max Cavalera
So times were hard, but as Max says, it was character building, and helped them develop the attitude they would need to become a cutting-edge thrash act. And at least they had the consolation of being good – so much so that they already had a record deal in the bank by 1985, after only a year of serious performing.
They put out an EP (‘Bestial Devastation’) and a first album (‘Morbid Visions’) in double quick time. It got some attention locally in Brazil, and they moved to Sao Paulo, a bigger city in the hope of building more momentum. Andreas Kisser joined on lead guitar – a clear technical upgrade on previous axeman Jairo Guedz – and 2 more albums followed, ‘Schizophrenia’ (1987) and ‘Beneath the Remans’ (1989).
In the same period, they also signed for a bigger label, Roadrunner, which allowed for international distribution and the first bit of wider recognition in the US and Europe. It’s fair to say though, that nobody was about to start throwing money at a relatively unknown thrash act all the way from Brazil. They had to record ‘Beneath the Remains’ in an (ahem) rundown studio in Rio, but the label did fly in Scott Burns to produce.
The band and Burns had to communicate via an interpreter, but it must have worked, because the album became a minor sensation. Heavy Metal critics loved it and the fans couldn’t wait to get hold of it.
They became regulars on MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball, toured with established bands like Napalm Death and Obituary. It all culminated in a slot at Rick in Rio in front of a crowd of 100,000.
So, in The Hawk’s usual meandering way, that brings us tot he point of this blog – ‘Arise’. This is an album still considered by a lot of fans to be the band’s best ever, certainly a thrash classic, and with a title track and opener that set the scene perfectly. They’d managed to capture all that pent up emotion – grief, impoverishment, injustice – and channel it into a thrash record that’s as close to perfect as you can get.
It certainly contrasts with, for example, the somewhat more sanitized Metallica offerings at the time. With ‘Arise’ you can hear the attitude in practically every note.
The track starts with a tension building opening, but then things explode when the instruments come in. That section before the first verse, where Igor plays all 4 beats of every bar on the snare, backed by the guitar peddlling on the same beats and the murderous double bass drums behind it. Then they repeat it with the snare and guitar peddling on alternate beats. Immense.
Then Max comes in with his roaring vocals, and we’re really in business, telling the story of the total annihilation of mankind.
Obscured by the sun
Cities fall in ruin
Why must we die?
…but Also Optimism
But don’t despair – the song actually has an upbeat message in the chorus:
Obliteration of mankind
Under a pale grey sky
We shall arise
So it’s actually about mankind rising from the ruins. So amid all the aggression, it’s actually a far more optimistic number than say, ‘Dead Embryonic Cells,’ one of the other singles from ‘Arise.’ That one is all about being born into a world of violence and pain from which there is no escape. So they’re definitely looking on the bright side in ‘Arise.’
Interesting fact interlude: Max got the idea for those chorus lyrics from U2’s ‘New Year’s Day’, where Bono sings ‘Under a blood red sky‘. Max changed it from blood red to pale grey, and there you have it. Influences really can come from anywhere. The same line was later used as the title of a live Sepultura album in 2002. Now, The Hawk has no immediate plans to feature U2 in a post on here, but that is a great song, so let’s have a link.)
Now back to ‘Arise’. Moving on from the opening verses and choruses, we get a bridge, which slows the tempo, but if anything raises the brooding intensity level. Then the fast drums kick in again for Kisser’s guitar solo, the second half with all that legato being especially memorable. We get a couple more verses and a chorus, then we’re out, and get the chance to draw breath. Whew!
‘Arise’ was always one of the bands favourite albums, and this track one of their favourite songs. Max commented as much soon after it came out:
From the musical point of view, this song sounds a lot like the Beneath the Remains album. It has the same speed as most of the songs, but it also shows some more hardcore influences. The lyrics of “Arise” are really up-to-date, because it’s about how people are ready to kill other people just because they believe in a different kind of God. I think that my voice sounds especially aggressive on this song, a lot like on our older albums.Max Cavalera
And it even came with a sprinkling of controversy which is always fun. The music video for ‘Arise’ featured a crucifixion scene, with a figure (who may or may not be Jesus) nailed up on the cross. There are shots of maybe-Jesus on the cross, with lingering close ups on the nails banged through his hands. Shots of him hauled down and lying dead on the ground. Shots of him back up on the cross wearing a gas mask.
This apocalyptic religious imagery was all too much for the suits at MTV, who banned it from their main shows (though it was mercifully still allowed on Headbangers’ Ball).
The song became a mainstay of their live act, and the fans never get tired of it. It’s been covered by plenty of other metal bands as well, which is always one of the best tributes you can have. For example, here are Swedish metallers The Crown with their take on it.
In the end, The Hawk can’t do any better in terms of praise for ‘Arise’ than paste the description Max Cavalera himself gave the song.
hat’s my favorite track, especially the main riff. I remember writing that and going, ‘Oh, yeah, this is sick.’ It’s like the prototype of a death-thrash song, It’s perfect. There’s nothing you can add to make it better. And if you take anything out of it, it ruins it. It’s like it’s perfect the way it is. So, I’m very proud of that one.Max Cavalera
Amen to that. So here’s the original in all its glory. Prepare for that banned apocalyptic imagery, and enjoy.
Arise – one of Sepultura’s best ever songs, and certainly appearing on their best album. Controversial? Maybe you have a higher ranking Sepultura song / album. Either way, let us know what you think in the comments below.