Big Al’s Metal Shop

For many of us, creativity is something mysterious, present only in short bursts. Sometimes, after staring at a problem for hours, the solution magically appears, dancing before our eyes. Certainly that has been the case in my other line of work. With time, these bursts become prolonged and more common. Then, the real discoveries begin. The expert within is unleashed, and you become a master. Usually, a decade or so passes between picking up your tools and really learning how to use them. If you don’t believe me, think back, say, five years, and look at how you can use algebra now or how you can form an argument within a paragraph. Now imagine sticking with that craft for two, three, or even four decades.

The belief that talent alone separates geniuses, whether musical or mathematical, from the rest of us is incomplete. Some of our best work is indeed completed in our 20s, but not all of it. Take the Stones, for example. Some may say that they should have hung it up after Some Girls or maybe even Exile on Main Street. But if you take off the rose-colored nostalgia glasses, their latest A Bigger Bang stands solidly alongside their earlier albums. The arrangement and lyrics all show the tandem of Jagger/Richards is as sharp as ever. The same can be said of Robert Plant’s latest as well.

As metal enters its fourth decade, one can now say that we have a large enough body of work to label some “geniuses.” Among the obvious choices from Birmingham, England; Florida; and New York, I nominate a certain Brasilian named Max Cavalera.

A decade ago, when Sepultura was arguably at its peak, Cavalera and his group released an album that redefined metal and who could play it. Mixing tribal music with drum-based metal seems obvious now, but in the mid-’90s it was a commercial risk without guaranteed dividends. In fact, it could have ruined the band’s and its label’s credibility. But what the group was able to achieve was groundbreaking, and it showed that metal is truly a global phenomenon. Leaving the group shortly after the obligatory world tour, Cavalera set out to further define his vision with his own group, Soulfly. To me, one sign of genius is people who can seek out talent to complement theirs, sometimes with raw talent surpassing their own. The musicians that have accompanied Cavalera reflect that. With Marc Rizzo in lead guitar, Cavalera has concentrated on what can only be described as composing metal masterpieces.

Whether it is flamenco, bossa nova, samba, or tribal percussion that’s infused into the sonic assault of metal, this peanut butter/chocolate mix works in Cavalera’s arrangement. Furthermore, it works in a sweaty pit of aggressive beasts looking for an outlet. This is what I witnessed last month at Mr. Small’s in Millvale.

Combining a natural charm with a commanding presence that most lead singers would give their left testicle for, Cavalera still looked visibly older than even a few years ago, and certainly since the Roots days. The stress accompanying the split with Sepultura, along with setting up a new entity and coupled with tragic personal losses seems to be reflected in his face. However, his energy and “sympatico” nature have remained, and his insertion of the crowd-firing “Roots” in the middle of the set is proof. Pulling a young fan out to sing and beat a few drums with him during the set with all the other members shows all the young’uns how to connect with an audience. And laying back and letting Rizzo shred in solos shows his grace and love for the music itself.

All of these are characteristics of a wiser, mature musician, but his true genius lies in his studio work and the field work he does in gathering intruments from Bosnia and Russia to the Amazon, and everywhere in between to create the sounds in his head. Watching any of his home videos, you see the professorial bent in his eyes as he tracks down the sounds he needs to fulfill the mental recipes he has. In doing so, he creates hidden gems on albums, like the last track “Zumbi” on 3, or any of the interludes on Prophecy.

A large part of that genius is also reflected in his selection of opening bands. No more evident is that than his choice of Full Blown Chaos. If you haven’t read this column before, suffice it to say that they are aptly named. As the mix of world music and metal led the scene a decade ago, the confluence of metal and hardcore, a thoroughly American invention, is leading the scene today. One of the leading lights is indeed FBC. These New Yorkers know their roots and have a great lead man in Ray Mazzoli. The songwriting is tight, but the band’s musicianship is tighter, and they are truly a live band. Obviously younger than Cavalera, they match his personality well, with the guitarist sticking his hand out to everyone in the crowd after the set, not just shaking hands, but actually meeting people. Their energy certainly set the tone for Soulfly, and dare I say challenged them to put on the best show I’ve seen them put on in years.

If you haven’t checked out a good metal band or two in a while, I eagerly recommend Dark Ages, by Soulfy, a thrash metal nightmare for our millennium, and Wake The Demons or anything else by Full Blown Chaos. For that matter, check out anything on Stillborn records too. And as always, support live metal in this city and around the world.

Cheers, and Up The Irons,