Fight Fire with Fire is an ongoing series on our site where we pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better. “But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sorts of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?
Today we look at two early works of total extreme-metal glory: Sarcófago’s I.N.R.I. and Sepultura’s Schizophrenia. Man, it gives me goosebumps (extreme-metal goosebumps, mind you!) just typing those words, as both releases offer up so much history, so much unhinged chaos, so much love for extremity. These two albums—both from 1987, both from Brazil, both records for the ages—are completely pure examples of youth absolutely going for it, tearing down any concept of limitations, creating pure sonic terror.
Yeah, I like both quite a bit.
But, when placed side by side and listened to again with a very critical ear, which one is actually better? Forgetting about what came after 1987, which of these two records stands its ground better today?
The answer may surprise you. Or, it may not. I have no idea because I’m writing this intro while still knee-deep in revisiting both albums, the classic Brazilian thrash/death/black sounds soothing me as my annihilated brain tries to make the final decision. And I have no idea because I’m not sure which one of these you’d automatically reach for when asked what the better one is. All I know is that this is some of the best extreme metal ever made.
Sarcófago – I.N.R.I.
There’s a very good reason that Sarcófago’s 1987 debut I.N.R.I. is in our Hall of Fame: the album absolutely, 100-percent, completely kills it. It still sounds unbelievably heavy in 2020, the band firming down the groundwork, along with a few other key players, for the bestial South American extreme metal sound that continues to this day, the mixture of proto-black, raw blackthrash and early caveman death metal infused with tons of energy and, importantly, bucketloads of passion.
“Desecration of Virgin” does the primitive proto-DM stomp to great effect, while “Nightmare” has a Slayerriffic intro to die—or kill—for, the band nervously eying each other down while seeing just how heavy slow can be. In their hands, very heavy, but it doesn’t take long before things get batshit crazy again, of course, the band blasting and grinding to the middle in no time.
The band’s “sleazy Satanist” side is strong in tunes like “Ready to Fuck,” which helps bring a sort of sordid levity to the proceedings, Sarcófago being seriously ludicrous in intent, giving an earnest effort that even the occasional moments of ham-fisted delivery (this isn’t sophisticated blasting, this is pure-feeling blasting), to be expected in this early stage of extreme music’s lifespan, can’t dull down. No one is saying these guys are musical geniuses or incredible on their instruments; this is more about pure feeling than it is spending time down in the basement obsessing over getting every note right. This one hits in the gut, and only snakes into that place in the brain that is pure go time, no care about anything else except scrambling to the end of the song, then starting the next one, and just fucking repeating that process until it’s over and, look at that, they had no idea what they were doing and threw down a classic album.
I.N.R.I. is incredibly good, the record totally brutal but also smothering the listener in vibe both charmingly naïve and genuinely repulsive. The band never matched this level of musical mania in the records they would make after this, but that’s just fine: most bands don’t leave behind one document this important, this singular, this untouchable. This is not an easy act to follow.
But their competitors today were never ones to back down from a challenge.
Sepultura – Schizophrenia
I always considered Schizophrenia the forgotten album of early-era Sepultura, but to this day I’m not sure if that’s just a me thing as it was the one I never owned on cassette, or if the metal world at large feels this way. Regardless, here we are, Sepultura killing it immediately with the raging “From the Past Comes the Storms,” the band showing right off the bat that they’d matured leaps and bounds since their debut, the previous year’s Morbid Visions. Not that this is chin-stroking material through and through, as the berserk “To the Wall,” for example, proves.
Meanwhile, the epic instrumental “Inquisition Symphony” shows a blossoming advanced level of thrash majesty from this soon-to-be-huge band. Really, it’s right here with this song that Sepultura laid down a line in the sand and said, get ready for this, because we’re growing up, and we’re about to lay down some serious thrash law.
Sarcófago never laid down that line. In 1987, they were resolutely primitive, blinders on into the caves. Sepultura were crafting cuts like closer “R.I.P. (Rest in Pain),” which was still total mayhem but had a Metallica-like sophistication to it. This album is endlessly exciting to listen to, not so much because we all know how incredible this band were about to become, but because you can hear the sound of a young group getting really, really good at their craft while still holding on to the chaos that drew them to this music to begin with.
So, yes, Schizophrenia is a bit of an in-between album, the band going from bestial blackthrash to a more solid, workmanlike thrash, end result being an absolutely raging take on both sides of Sepultura’s personality. And that’s what makes it really great, and what makes it unique in the band’s discography.
It’s interesting spending time with both these records back to back, as it shows one band resolutely sticking to the path of pure chaos and one dead-set determined to break out of the chaos with a bit of clarity to their sound, a huge, focused thrash versus a more raw, going-nowhere-fast blackthrash. I love the attitude behind both, and the resulting sonics, incredibly.
I can run the numbers over and over, I can listen to both albums endlessly, and I can try to quantify my feelings in such a way that makes sense to rank these two albums, but all that really ends up happening is me spiralling out of control once again, brain swimming in these wonderful, wonderful early extreme-metal sounds. But, fuck it: Sarcófago for the win here, the complete commitment to extremity totally admirable and pretty much untouchable, I.N.R.I. standing not only as a perfect document of very early extreme metal but also managing to still sound great today, totally berserk, totally unhinged, totally perfect.