Released last Friday, the new album from Soulfly, Archangel, has already received numerous reviews. For those with rating systems, it’s generally pulling a 3/5 or 7/10 (i.e. – it’s not a great album, but it’s still pretty good). At the extremes, some writers see it as cobbled together and phoned-in; others call it a ferocious comeback and the bands most diverse and consistent album to date. I gave the album multiple spins over the course of three days. Here’s my take…
DAY ONE & TWO LISTENING NOTES: Listened to the album twice on my iPad on Friday night as I cooked dinner and hung out with friends. On Saturday, I listened to the album once in my car and 2-3 times on my stereo.
Archangel is a landmark album for Soulfy for a few reasons: 1) it’s the bands 10th album, 2) it’s the bands shortest album (37 minutes), and 3) it’s Max’s first foray into Biblical themes. As the album title and cover suggests, Old Testament/Abrahamic mythology and scripture comprise the bulk of the albums lyrical narrative, story, and themes. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s not a concept album. And it’s certainly not Christian Metal. Nevertheless, on Archangel the indigenous Brazilian atmospheres and accents are reigned in as the band lyrically (and perhaps, musically) forge into this new territory where the landscape and people are subject to God’s mercy. Sinners are punished. Angels fall. You get the idea.
Where the album misses – that’s as an album, from start to finish – is the few songs that don’t follow this biblical narrative. The most guilty of the bunch is the albums opening track, “We Sold Our Souls to Metal.” As its title suggests, the song is a tribute to metal music and being a metalhead. The song actually rocks, but considering the Archangel narrative we’re expecting from the albums other songs titles (like “Sodomites,” “Bethlehem’s Blood”) and the album cover itself, this opening track just begs the question, Why? What’s more, the title track (the second song of the album) has every quality of an instant-classic album opener. Critics have not been kind to “We Sold Our Souls to Metal,” calling it sophomoric and contrived and cheesy. It’s hard to argue; however, the song is primarily victimized for being the albums first track. As it stacks up to the themes of the songs that follow, it seems out of place.
The title track opens with some guitar noodling and a programmed drum loop that slowly builds up to a doomy guitar riff. Cavalera and guitarist Marc Rizzo intertwine middle-eastern/prog metal-y licks. And the song changes time on a dime; shifting gears among doom, thrash, and extreme metal. Rather than sounding like a hodge-podge tribute to the metal generic, it’s a superb track. From one of the first listens through the album, this track stood out immediately as one of my favorites.
Among the other album stand-outs: “Sodomites” features Cavalera’s voice sounding friggin great over a mostly doom metal riff; “Shamash” starts off with a classic thrash metal riff before morphing into something closer to what many listeners would call a classic-era-Sepultura song; and “Bethlehem’s Blood” (one of the more diverse songs on the album) that features acoustic guitars, horns, and my favorite guitar solo on the album. “Ishtar Rising” and “Titans” are two powerful and crushing metal tracks. Don’t try to pin down a genre, just bang your head and have fun.
As an assessment of the album as a whole, there are a few bumps in the road. Namely, “Live Life Hard!,” a punky biker-gang-bar-anthem and “Deceiver.” These tracks, along with “We Sold Our Souls to Metal,” are the oddballs of the bunch. They don’t have the religious theme and musically they harken back to thrash metals hardcore punk roots. These three tracks should have been grouped together separately as a tour exclusive single or a Record Store Day release. These are good songs. Metalheads should rejoice. These songs just feel out of line with the rest of the album.
One of my favorite tracks, unfortunately a bonus track (depending on where and how you buy), is “Soulfly X.” This instrumental took me back to Sepultura’s “Kaiowas” days, though a bit less tribal in terms of percussion. Backed by Tony Campos’ hypnotic acoustic bass, Cavalera and Rizzo weave together a lush fabric of sitars and flamenco guitars. Guest Roman Cacakhanyan also plays a duduk (an indigenous Armenian double-reed flute) on the track, giving it an otherworldly quality. It was at the end of this track that I first wanted more from the Archangel album. That’s when it became clear that more songs like “Soulfly X” and fewer songs like “We Sold Our Soul to Metal,” would strengthen the album and better support its overall theme (and that glorious album cover).
More than one reviewer has noted that Zyon Cavalera’s drumming is vastly improved (1, 2, 3) since the bands previous release. Honestly, I’ve never heard that album. But, I can tell you he’s quite impressive here. Strong double-bass, some cool fills, and generally leading the charge and the change when songs shift gears and speed. His work on the title track is particularly impressive.
DAY 3 LISTENING NOTES: Listened to the album twice with headphones and once on the stereo while doing housework.
I changed my mind. “We Sold Our Souls to Metal” is the perfect song to kick off this album. While some have argued the album is all over the place, my take is that it’s everything but the kitchen sink and it works. Metal is a loaded term. Different people of different generations and genders have different ideas about what metal means. Cavalera’s been around long enough to witness heavy metal music evolve and mutate with various degrees of artistic and commercial success. Often, he’s been a participant in these mutations. When Cavalera screams, “We sold our souls to metal!” he’s setting up an album that traces metal history and celebrates its strongest aspects. Thrash metal morphs into doom metal that morphs into post-nu-metal that morphs into groove metal that morphs into some simple good old meat-and-potatoes metal. What’s more, the execution is spot-on, balls-to-the-wall, no bullshit. I don’t love every song, but the majority of this album kicks ass.
Rooted in thrash metal, experimenting in other metal sub-genres, and suffering constant criticism for any attempt at innovation or change, Max Cavalera is still standing. Criticize him if you must, but Cavalera and Soulfly can still melt your face off. If you’re willing to embrace this album, there’s plenty to love. Otherwise, haters gonna hate. Cavalera’s still gonna shred.
– J. Kevin Lynch