Sepultura, whose name means "grave," is a metal band, founded in the mid-80s in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The mountain city was a carefully planned community, and later an oft-cited example of industrial urban sprawl (but still kinda pretty). Appropriately messed-up with rockin' roots, Sepultura was inspired to move to the even more sprawling, massively industrialized São Paulo, the biggest city in the Southern Hemisphere. Population estimates range between 17 and 22 million -- it's a little hard to tell, with mitigating factors like AIDS, drugs, environmental pollution, gang warfare, traffic and cops (not necessarily in that order).
Sepultura, who became known in Brazil and then internationally as pioneers of death metal, has never stopped writing about such local, everyday atrocities. But albums like Chaos A.D. and Roots Bloody Roots found plenty of material in a whole, real world of hurt. Like the exiled, wandering medieval poet Dante Alighieri, Sepultura discovered a lot of familiar faces in Hell. Not so surprising that its new album, Dante XXI, shares some themes with Dante's Divine Comedy, though Sepultura's lyricists singer Derrick Green and guitarist Andreas Kisser never try to imitate Dante's verse. (Green and Kisser may feel like exiles from credibility, since the dramatic departure of Sepultura's co-founders, brothers Max and Igor Cavalera.)
Sepultura's 2003 release, Roorback, brought a sardonically swinging, slippery dynamic to songs that otherwise might've seemed too preachy and stiff. On Dante XXI, the slipperiness penetrates the material more deeply. A handclap backbeat provides a parody of gospel music, while a faintly sarcastic choir seeps into your headphones, like a whiff of gas. Brittle, hollow-pinging sounds flicker like a migraine around roaring, down-tuned guitar and bass. Horns and cellos appear, like polyps, in the murky center of the mix. At other times, the horns seem to lead the hunt, or circle overhead, like searchlights. Cellos may also mourn or brood, or turn as harsh and dry as the guitars usually are.
Other sounds, including those of words, get lost and reappear in new guises, new nuances. "Dark Wood Of Error" is dense but never too congested the song and the album are always well-paced, like Dante's own journey through all shades of darkness and light. The narrator/singer's "I" rails at a "you" that sometimes seems like a distorted, mercurial image of himself. The "error" is straightforwardly admitted to be fear, seen as evidence of weakness and a sinful lack of faith in one's own better nature.
But also, the error of another "you" (sometimes "them") is so monstrously faithless, so compulsively fraudulent promising salvation, law and order, everything that mortal fear morphs into moral outrage and locks into a vicious power struggle with the forces of greedy oppression. (Did I mention it's a metal album?)
Eventually, in "City of Dis," a distinction is attempted between the steadfast heretic who, as Dante put it, "seems to hold all Hell in disrespect," and the overheated hero and/or villain, who snarls like a cornered B-movie gangster in "False." This antihero's stances and attitudes fuse in meltdown, despite declarations like "Your mask will soon fall, I will be free from this grave where you lie." The song takes place in "Molebolge" (Dante's "Malebolge" or "Bad Purse" for very bad pennies aka filthy, greedy souls). "End of Hell," Derrick Green abruptly announces, skipping Dante's frozen ninth ring, the quicker to land in Purgatory.
If the protagonist can stand to be alone, there's a chance things will get better.
If so, his reward is the "Crown and Miter" of faith found in himself, and so he can give up the power struggle: "Powerless! What does that mean? Who has control over everything? I had to have compassion, to understand that I have to give." However, not to give the ending away, but it sounds pretty ominous. Sepultura might have noticed that although Dante earned and rewarded himself with a heavenly vision at the end of his Divine Comedy, he died soon after finishing it. The band sounds determined to sail its underground river as long as they can, seeing by the light of Hell or Heaven or whatever's at hand.
Sepultura plays Tremont Music Hall, with Sworn Enemy, Diecast, Suicide Silence; Dec. 6; 7:30 p.m.; $18-$20; www.tremontmusichall.com.