As someone who lives in the United States, I look back to the era of what’s often called “Satanic Panic” as a source of fascination and unintentional hilarity. I caught the tail end of the ordeal, watching segments on shows like Sightings and Unsolved Mysteries. Topics such as brainwashing, ritual abuse, and alleged Satanic cults lurking in the shadows of middle America were presented by would-be experts with less than notable credentials. Naturally, a large part of this backlash from the establishment was the utilization of satanic imagery found in heavy metal. Venom, Slayer, Mercyful Fate–they all sang the praises of the cloven-hoofed anti-hero. Black Widow, Coven, and of course Black Sabbath all planted the seeds for what would be eventually cultivated by this group of devotees.
Among the contributors to this phenomenon were a handful of bands from Brazil. More specifically, those involved with an independent label named Cogumelo Records. Located in the city of Belo Horizonte. These groups would not only be pivotal is shaping the genre and influencing countless others, but their use of imagery and lyrical content would take on a subversive form of defiance in the face of oppression.
Like many other nations in South America, Brazil was once a colony controlled by a European power. Established by Portugal in 1500, the church was instrumental in converting several native peoples to Catholicism, as was their justification for colonization. While Brazil’s Catholic church is considered quite liberal, and a separation of church and state has existed since the country’s independence in 1822, they still represent a subtle form of oppression. The church is itself the last foothold of colonialism—exerting control over the lives of its followers. As the ultimate symbol of the establishment, the use of Satanic imagery is the ultimate backlash against the status quo.
Sepultura–little introduction is needed. Easily the most successful metal act to emerge from the country, they’ve managed to stay relevant while constantly reinventing their sound. While the quality of the band’s music has certainly declined since the departure of guitarist and vocalist Max Cavalera in1996—they carry on. Sepultura made their debut in 1985 with Bestial Devastations, a split EP with Overdose. The discontent in regards to the church wasn’t hidden one bit—the cover art featured a crudely drawn bestial force towering over a large cathedral. A display that represented a stand against the oppressive nature of both religion and state. With songs such as “Necromancer” and “Warriors of Death”, this early incarnation of the band wore their influences on their sleeve. “Antichrist”, written by the group’s former vocalist, Wagner Lamounier, spelled out the open hostility towards Catholicism. “Churches will be destroyed; crosses will be broken.” Although many weren’t quite adept at writing lyrics in English at this time—they still served as wrath from the disenfranchised.
Sepultura released their debut full-length, Morbid Visions (1986) one year later. Songs such as “Troops of Doom” and “Show Me the Wrath” contained the same levels of raw aggression that were found on Bestial Devastations, but more refined. Following the departure of original lead guitarist Jairo T., the band would abandon their first wave black metal sound in favor of a thrash. Schizophrenia (1987), the first release to feature Andreas Kisser on lead guitar showed a remarkable progression as Sepultura divorced themselves from the satanic imagery and surpassed their previous body of work in terms of musical complexity. In the years that followed, Sepultura would become more vocal in regards to their politics. Chaos AD (1994), showed the band transitioning from thrash to groove metal. The lyrics were politically charged—with Max even collaborating with Jello Biafra and Evan Seinfeld. Writing about a subject matter such as police brutality, the oppression of the native Brazilian tribes, and the escalation of political strife overseas, Sepultura helped bring many issues to the forefront of their fan base who lived outside of South America.
While “Antichrist” clearly had a subversive element regarding religion—the reworking of the song re-named “Anti-cop” was anything but. An unrelenting attack on the corruption and brutality of the police, the lyric of “All the police fucking die” is just about as blunt and straightforward as one could possibly get. In recent years, Max Cavalera has grown increasingly spiritual, talking about his personal relationship with God that exists outside the confines of organized religion. While Max might have found enlightenment, the man who penned the original lyrics to Antichrist took a very different path. For Wagner “Antichrist” Lamounier and his band, Sarcofago, discontent and unbridled ferocity were as much a part of their formative years as they would be until they disbanded in 2000. Just as Sepultura was leaving their original sound behind, Sarcofago took the sounds formulated by Venom and Celtic Frost and crafted a release that was frothing at the mouth with hatred and bloodlust.
I.N.R.I. (1987), named for the letters usually found on crucifixes associated with Catholicism, (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, which is loosely translated to Jesus Nazareth, King of the Jews) could easily be considered the most significant black metal album since Venom coined the term in 1981. (Aside from Deathcrush (1987) by Mayhem and Bathory’s 1984self-titled release). The appropriation of religious symbolism was a direct attack against the church and s nothing short of the desecration of objects viewed by many as “holy.”
Wagner’s command of the English language was limited, to say the least. What’s sometimes described as “fago-English” has become the subject of unlikely admiration. “If you are a false do not entry, for you will be burned and died” and “Skull and putrid corpses, sads and somber places, and you will cry tears of blood because you are dead” are among some of the memorable gems that many, including myself, hold in the highest of regards. What Sarcofago lacked in the ability to properly translate a foreign language, they made up for with their sound. With Wagner spewing his anti-Christian and destructive lyrics and the frenetic drumming of mohawked D.D. Crazy, Sarcofago would inspire many to do the same. Song titles such as “Desecration of Virgin”, “Recrucify”, and “Sathanas” signified a strong stance against Catholicism.
“On fire of darkness, rise a scream of hate. Satanas want vomit on son of God’s face”
More than anything else, Sarcofago demand the highest respect for their dedication in not conforming to changing trends or sacrificing their integrity. The band showed an ability to retain their outward hostility and aggression while taking their sound in new directions. The Laws of Scourge (1991) showed the group capable of crushing thrash anthems that focused on subject matter that was relevant to the world they lived in. “Midnight Queen” and “Screeches from the Silence” tackled material such as life on the edge and teenage prostitution. Subsequent releases saw the band moving into drum machine-dominated death metal. Hate (1994) and The Worst (1997) both silenced any doubts that Sarcofago might mellow with age. The group actually made a strong aesthetic choice with the song “Shave Your Head.”
Just as the band had once appropriated religious symbols to take a stand against the church—Wagner’s lyrics discuss bands such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and others from the grunge explosion having long hair and subsequently normalizing it. The lyrics also spoke out against drug and alcohol abuse, citing them as nothing more than self-destructive behavior.
“All these years passed. Had showed us the same facts. Drugs and booze are giving the sign. To the life of millions of young souls that are rotting their brains with cocaine entering up in their noses. Long hairs is not more a mark of the braves. It became just a fashion and had lost its anger”
The year 2000 would see the grand finale with the Crust EP. In a very honest and unrelenting statement, Sarcofago criticized the development of the very sub-genre they helped inspire. “F.O.B.M. (Fuck Off Melodic Black Metal)” is an angry battle cry against appropriation and manufactured anger. “Selling Satan like another capitalism’s product. Corrupting the essence of brutal music! Remember what Warrior said: ‘Only Death is real!’” While no longer a force in the world of heavy metal, Wagner Lamounier has since become an economist and a college professor. Whether it’s taking a stand against the oppressive nature of Catholicism or educating young minds, Wagner has certainly left an indelible mark upon the world.
For Holocausto, the real-life horrors of Nazi atrocities would take the place of satanic imagery typically used by groups like Sarcofago. In a country where human rights violations and corruption exist in several different forms, there’s no better attack upon the oppressive boot of the establishment than highlighting the crimes of the worst regime in human history. Their 1987 debut, Campo de Extermínio was met with immediate controversy. The album’s cover art of a Nazi guard attacking a skeletonized concentration camp inmate would certainly elicit shock from anyone who happened to view it. While most likely not entirely intentional—this is less about the actual holocaust and more about the personal experience of being forcibly held in poverty by the ruling classes.
Holocausto painted a world of unrestrained horror and devastation. Similar to the unfair accusations made against Slayer for their song, Angel of Death, Holocausto certainly had their share of detractors who assumed they were using their imagery and lyrical content to glorify the crimes of the Third Reich. Much like Jeff Hanneman once said in his defense, the band cited that the lyrical content was describing a barbaric chapter of history, and not endorsing any far-right or antisemitic beliefs. Considering 1985 had marked an end of a 21-year military regime in Brazil, Campo de Extermínio deserves credit for being a subversive statement in regards to oppression and the struggles contained therein. Their most recent effort, Diário de Guerra (2019) arrived the same year that the Bolsanaro regime came into power.
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”
While this only scratches the surface as far as Brazilian metal is concerned—it’s important to remember that any art form can possess a multitude of meanings. Weather it’s defiance of a religion forced upon natives by their colonial masters, or a continuous changing political structure oppressing the lives of its citizens, Sepultura, Sarcofago and Holocausto all lashed out against the very establishments that attempted to keep them in their proper place. The necessity for subversive art will always exist. It only takes one look at the world we live in to understand why.