Soulfly's forays into obscure sounds are nothing new. The metal band's collaborations on its 1998 self-titled debut revealed as strong a thirst for the unique as 2005's Dark Ages did.
But rarely has the band gone to extremes like this. While vacationing in Istanbul a trip he proudly claims to have kept hidden from his record label frontman Max Cavalera decided to stop in at Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine Church of Holy Wisdom, for some much-needed inspiration. Instead, he initially found only disappointment; that day, construction workers were making repairs to the ancient church's ceiling.
"Little did I know," Cavalera recalls, "that the sound of them banging in the metal was what I [would use] on the record. It was the coolest sound of anything. It sounds like bells."
Dark Ages is peppered with flourishes and surprising bits of melodic sounds and atmosphere, hinting at the band's work alongside performers as eclectic as Sean Lennon, a collective called the Mulambo Tribe, and, most recently, a group of Russian classical musicians.
That said, the album maintains Soulfly's commitment to heavy riffing, and a metallic attack firmly rooted in the uninspired and overproduced conventions of mid-'90s commercial death metal. It's a symptom perhaps carried over from its first album, which featured no fewer than six superstar n-metal contributors (including Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst).
Such is the conundrum facing Cavalera and Soulfly. How can the music change and grow, without alienating the band's fan base?
Granted, it's been done before; dabbling in exotic and foreign musical idioms inside popular music certainly isn't novel. Pop eccentrics from David Byrne to Martin Denny have been ripping off foreign and tribal sounds since the 1950s.
For his part, Cavalera is honest and open about his rather obvious, if not quite comparable, influences.
"My favorite guys are Lee Perry and Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon with Graceland," he says.
While few music fans would categorize the creative force behind Soulfly alongside that of Paul Simon, Cavalera's vision has evolved considerably since his work with his former group, Sepultura, the highly popular Brazilian death metal band. Whereas Sepultura was more stridently political and socially focused, Cavalera has taken a more personally spiritual stance with Soulfly.
"It's part of the reinvention of Max," he says. "Otherwise, people would just listen to the records like, "Oh, here he goes again, singing about police brutality.'"
Soulfly's lyrics reflect the singer's increasing interest in the trials of the individual. But Cavalera is no mope; while he embraces the gloomy preoccupations with destruction that have always pervaded heavy metal, the singer is deliberate in his attempts to contrast the "dark" side of life with a genuinely inspiring if conceptually vague message of hope.
It's an odd direction for a mainstream metal band to take. But Cavalera doesn't seem to mind.
"I really like the personal spirit of Soulfly," he says. "[It's] just an amazing kind of tribal spirit."
Soulfly with Full Blown Chaos, Incite and Wicked Wisdom
The Black Sheep, 2106 E. Platte Ave.
Friday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $22, all ages; visit sodajerkpresents.com.