Soulfly – Totem (Album Review)

Soulfly – Totem
Released: August 5, 2022 

Line Up

Max Cavalera – Vocals, 4-string guitar
Zyon Cavalera – Drums
Mike Leon – Bass 

Online 

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It’s been 25 years since Max Cavalera left Sepultura and formed his own band, Soulfly. Despite having to answer persistent questions about reforming with the continuing Brazilian metal masters, Max has been in Soulfly double the years he did with Sepultura and, with Totem ready to roll, has released 12 albums written on his faithful 4 string guitars. Sure there’s been plenty of other projects (Go Ahead And Die last year, two Killer Be Killed albums, four with brother Iggor as Cavalera Conspiracy) but it’s Soulfly that he comes back to. He is the sole constant in this one, but the revolving lineup has never stopped each album feeling like a complete band. So it is with Totem, an album that is unmistakably Max, and that means it’s brutally heavy with a dose of spirituality and mindfulness too. 

‘Superstition’ kicks off and it joins a long line of Soulfly smashers. There’s down tuned thrash, with an eastern-influenced melodic section, before the hammering resumes. There’s some crazy percussion with distorted effects to close out too, a call back perhaps to similar production on the early Soulfly albums. ‘Scouring the Vile’ fades in with a much more death metal sound, thanks in part to the presence of Obituary vocalist John Tardy. Hearing Max combine with legends over the years has been one of the secrets of his success and the Tardy/Cavalera combo hits the mark, with lyrics focused on Tardy’s cancer battle. 

‘Filth Upon Filth’ is the kind of blackened thrasher that Max has done a lot over the years, and he injects this one with his trademark venom. The solo is lit. I was worried the absence of Marc Rizzo might be noticeable but with John Powers and producer Arthur Rizk (both of Eternal Champion) laying down some blistering solos, the song’s sound fresh with some serious slick squeaks and fret shredding. I mean ‘Rot in Pain’ is just nuts, a completely arrogant display of thrash mastery and anyone doubting Max can’t lay down like he did on Beneath the Remains can just STFU. 

The strength of Soulfly though is that they don’t do one thing for a dozen songs. ‘Damage Done’ is a highlight, with some Sabbath doom riffs combined with grindcore drumming from Zyon Cavalera and a ton of echo on the vocals. The first solo is a twisting and turning affair before the grind that runs through the bridge and into a second solo. Ol’ Max still has a bunch of songwriting skills and he ain’t shooting all his shots on one song. ‘Totem’ is much more industrial on the beat, evoking Prophecy or The Dark Ages, and has a killer headbang chorus. There’s no way you put this on and keep a still head. I dare you to try. You will headbang. It is inevitable. It’s also here that Rizk’s production really stands out. Far from a commercial sound, he had given the songs a demonic, unholy quality, reminiscent of his work with Power Trip and Cavalera Conspiracy. The closing groove on ‘Totem’ runs a few minutes and gets so slow and gnarly, with Max’s groans mixed in somewhere there, that the wall of sound is just savage. 

Much like the previous album, Ritual (2018), there is no letting up either. Whilst Max has sometimes tacked on seemingly separate instrumental sections to songs (see 2008’s Conquer), everything on Totem is deliberate and tight. In some ways, I miss the jamming aspect of Soulfly but the weight of every song is undeniable. ‘Ancestors’ is a great case in point, thrashing hard before a middle section opens up before ending with a more melodic close. Whole thing is done in three minutes. ‘Ecstacy of Gold’ runs a bit longer and has a great high tempo groove and some of the album’s best riffs. It’s just a great crunch and you can hear the absence of the bottom two strings on the rhythm guitar, it’s just so deep with only the lead guitar adding any light. 

Arguably the most interesting development is the traditional self-titled instrumental (‘Soulfly XII’). Rather than commit to an acoustic jam, the band have played around with some FX pedals and come up with a tune not far removed from 1980s goth influences such as The Cure. You read that right. It’s very spacey and airy, with synths and a tight rhythm section. It’s pretty different and certainly a sound Max should explore (maybe with Greg and Troy in Killer Be Killed?). Best of all it serves as a segue into the album’s closer ‘Spirit Animal’. It starts with an array of environmental sound grabs before unleashing a violent riff animal. This song is over nine minutes long so there’s no hurry, the band sit with the riffs and really get into it. When it gets to the lyrics it’s glorious, a deep growl contrasted with rasps that are loaded with sentiment. Chris Ulsh (Mammoth Grinder, Power Trip) pops up to play the solo too. It’s epic and we finally get the percussive moments we had been waiting for. Zyon’s hands and arms get a good workout as he touches everything from snare to tom. It ascends to a reggae tune capturing the spiritual nature of the lyrics (and the album as a whole). I didn’t even notice the horns coming in, but it adds to the festival feel of the song. I don’t have any idea who does the vocals here, it ain’t Max, but it’s beautiful. And that’s Soulfly, isn’t it? Equal parts viciousness and grace. 

It’s been a while since Soulfly released a meh album. Totem is no different, like Ritual and Archangel, it’s gloriously heavy combined with other sounds that no other band can pull off. It will shake you and give you reasons to think about your life and place in the world. Turn it on, tune out the world and let your soul fly free.

Soulfly – Totem Tracklisting:

  1. Superstition
  2. Scouring the Vile
  3. Filth Upon Filth 
  4. Rot in Pain
  5. The Damage Done
  6. Totem
  7. Ancestors
  8. Ecstasy of Gold
  9. Soulfly XII
  10. Spirit Animal

Rating: 7.5 / 10
Totem is released August 5, 2022 via Nuclear Blast Records. Preorder here.
Review by KJ Draven (Twitter and Instagram

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