Supposedly after the mammoth tour in support of “Arise” Brazilian quartet Sepultura ran out of steam and, well, ideas, really. Lord knows what happened to them on that trek all over the world. Not only did it knock the air of what was formerly the most violent and cutthroat death/thrash unit on the scene, it also sucked out the band’s creativity. “Chaos A.D.” is equal amounts punk/hardcore as it is copious amounts of Pantera worship. This is the album, a gateway album for many at that, where the Brazilian contenders to the thrash metal crown lost the plot, a thing from which they never recovered. It mostly marks the end of an era. The end of Sepultura’s reign as death/thrash mavens, the last to feature Michael Whelan artwork and the one but last to feature Max Cavalera on vocals and rhythm guitars. Although you are hardpressed to find that last aspect a selling point.
The album opens with the in utero heartbeat of Max Cavalera’s then-unborn son Zyon, and while that sample is a great intro piece on itself, it begs the first question of many: what happened to long-time keyboardist Henrique Portugal? Where’s the aggression? Where are the whirlwind riffs? And probably most importantly: where are the songs? Sepultura never hid the fact that they liked hardcore as much as they liked extreme metal, but this is the first record that actively suffers from needless experimentation. It spents far too much time on trying very hard to be something that it is not - and probably will never be. It also is a sobering reminder what happens to great bands when they decide to ditch their legacy in the name of the almighty dollar. Integrity, previously Sepultura’s most defining trait, is exchanged for an oversimplified, dumbed down stab at senseless commercialism and lukewarm mainstream acceptance. “Chaos A.D.” is big, dumb and loud. Dumb mostly, though.
‘Refuse/Resist’ is the first song, and while the lack of riffs and speed is immediately noticeable – it at least has the decency to not waste anybody’s time. The title was taken from Indian dissident Mahatma Ghandi’s ideology of non-violent civilian disobedience, and the lyrics are concise and to-the-point. ‘Territory’ starts off with a tribal drumbeat, but falls back in tempo soon after the intro. ‘Slave New World’, co-written by Evan Seinfeld from Biohazard, is another pointless hardcore ditty, and the presence of Andreas Kisser’s solo does little to redeem this track, or the ones that came before it. It has nothing to do with the Aldous Huxley novel “Brave New World” which is referenced in the song title. In truth, the most intelligent thing about this song is the somewhat clever pun of the song title. The increased levels of bass-centricness, the presence of barely two riffs per song (not counting the slight variations of each which are passed off as bridges), the stripped down hardcore approach in the songwriting and the Pantera groove metal aping is what makes “Chaos A.D.” the crushing disappointment that it is. The three singles mentioned earlier only serve to display that sad and sorry fact. No amount of label-muscle was going to be able to hide how poorly conceived and written this record is, or was rather. “Chaos A.D.” is a mess, a glorious mess at that.
One of the surprisingly effective new ideas was the instrumental cut 'Kaiowas’. Consisting of acoustic guitars and tribal percussion the track exposes a frail and sensitive side the band had not shown prior. The execution and delivery isn’t lacking per se, but a bigger deal could have been made out of it. ‘Kaiowas’ exists, and it passes the listener by without the realization that it hints at something bigger and better. It is unfortunate that this lone great track is surrounded by a veritable morass of bad ideas. ‘Amen’ and ‘Nomad’ follow the architecture of previous tracks, and the inclusion of crudely sampled religious chants does not redeem it. In fact it further exposes the eroded songwriting capability of this once mighty band, and the chants accentuate the absence of any real riffs. ‘Nomad’ follows suit, and while it has some decent riffs (especially the one after the break) and drumming it still is lacking in about every department that the band used to excel at. ‘Biotech Is Godzilla’ was co-written by Jello Biafra who also adds backing vocals. It is a fast and short hardcore/punk track that really feels out of place on a Sepultura record, and even on the subsequent Nailbomb album it would have been considered pointless and lacking. ‘Propaganda’ is much of the same as ‘Biotech Is Godzilla’ and ‘Manifest’ is another experiment in sound that really shouldn’t have been allowed to happen in the first place. ‘We Who Are Not As Others’ is something, although I’m not entirely certain what. It consists of about two riffs and a mantra-like repetition of the song’s title. The solo does little to redeem it, but that goodwill is crushed by the idiotic laughing that concludes the track. ‘The Hunt’ is a functional cover of a New Model Army song with a ton of neat little acoustic guitars in the background and a slightly better vocal performance by Max. ‘Clenched Fist’ is a prototype for the later Nailbomb album, which would become the companion piece to this record.
“Chaos A.D.” is, no matter how you spin it, Sepultura’s artistic death certificate.
This is a record of changes, superficial and profound. The songs all are mere shells of what the band used to write. The lyrics are still socio-political, but they seem more based around one-liners and quips rather than actual dissections of ideas or ideologies. The absence of riffs per song is hard not to notice, and the riffs that do appear are one-two note excuses that even hardcore bands would be embarrassed to use in their songs. The band that once stuffed their songs to the brim with impressive riff after riff here contents itself with building a song around a single, or two riffs at most. The fire is gone and so is the passion. Max Cavalera’s vocals regressed to a severe degree. His once mighty roars and thrash metal screams became a caveman shout that was supposed to convey all the anger, frustration and righteous indignation at the world while it mostly comes off as comical, and well, mentally challenged, if we’re being honest about it. The fact that the songs are largely build around Cavalera’s grumbling, percussive tough guy vocals don’t help matters either. That this record has the highest count of expletives makes the new vocal style even less defensible. This isn’t tough. It is embarrassing. The songs all are a lot slower too. It is hard to believe that this band wrote “Beneath the Remains” and “Schizophrenia” – both classics of riff-oriented high speed thrash metal.
Some call the production unlistenable, but for one reason or the other this is one my favorite productions of the era. Without a single doubt this is, literally, the heaviest Sepultura has ever sounded from a production standpoint. Igor’s kickdrums sound ominous and powerful, Paulo’s bass guitar finally gets the attention it deserves, and the guitar tone, both for rhythm and leads, is earthy and organic but never lifeless or sterile. What the production does bring to attention is that, while the band sounds heavier and cleaner than it was ever before, the song material on this record is lacking, and when it does occasionally deliver something of note it is lowest common denominator pandering. This is why this record is so divisive and polarizing for many, even a full two decades after its original release. This was my first metal record, and while I have some adoration for it, mostly through nostalgia, that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t very good, or even worthy of half the lavish praise it continues to get with the casual masses.
For all the praise the record gets it seems to focus on the wrong elements of this particular equation. The songs on here are drawn out, listless affairs based around one or two riffs, tons of caveman grooves and daft anti-authorian lyrics that don’t really say a whole lot than the band has established on earlier records. Sure, it is the band’s most direct and confrontational record, but how much does that say exactly? The crunchy and concrete production is bass-heavy and absolutely stellar, but it is wasted on a dull, meandering record that doesn’t seem to have any real purpose, or direction. “Chaos A.D.” is indeed a chaos of mismatched ideas, disjointed groove riffing and listless chugging that would have the most ardent Pantera disciple running for cover. The 90s were an ugly time for metal above and below the mainstream, this is a reminder of that.