Making a good thing better: Vika vs. Sepultura

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Vika’s version ov Sepultura’s “Kaiowas”

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My first encounter with Vika’s work was her piano arrangement of Carcass’ “Corporal Jigsore Quandary”. I was stoked that someone with chops was demonstrating what I’d always felt: metal has some GREAT composers. Bill Steer, James Hetfield, and Trey Azagthoth, to name but a few, all really dig under the fingernails of riff-writing to pull out strong themes, clever variations, and some truly memorable harmonic vistas. Hearing their music played by Vika hammers home two ideas: (1) great music comes from great writing and transcends format and orchestration, and (2) sometimes a well-written piece finds new life in re-imagining.

Such is the case with her cover of “Kaiowas” by Sepultura. (I bought Chaos A.D. on cassette the week it was released. I still remember looking at the copyright date on the tape and being blown away that it was ALREADY 1993). Amidst the amazing, sludgy riffs of that album was the plaintive “Kaiowas”. Without a trace of irony came this fully acoustic, Zeppelin-esque reprieve, replete with bongos and the sound of birds chirping (the latter is incidental ambience from the open air setting of the recording). It was a breath of fresh air and a decidedly bold way for Sepultura to assert their diversity without compromising their metallic mantle.

I was under the impression that the song only really worked contextually. I love the way “Kaiowas” acts as a semi-feint to the crush of “Propaganda” with its mind-meltingly dissonant intro. However, I would not necessarily recommend “Kaiowas” – certainly not as a primer on Sepultura, but not even as one of my favorite acoustic songs by a heavy band. The song was recorded live, and you can almost hear how casual and fun it was for the band whilst they performed it. While that casual, fun vibe is an integral aspect of Sepultura, and not an unbecoming one to display, it’s not their most compelling aspect, either. Sepultura are at their best when crushing us to a bloody pulp.

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Sepultura – “Kaiowas” (original)

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How ironic, then, to discover that the crushing qualities of “Kaiowas” needed a classical pianist to reveal them? My first thought when I heard Vika Yermolyeva’s cover was, “Do Sepultura know how good this song is?” Vika instills a drama and glee in the song by adding her own dynamics, tempo shifts, and harmonic flourishes. My favorite touch is her re-orchestratation of the percussion part for the low register of the piano. That meaty, root-third chord she hammers out is so satisfying, I’d like to take a bite out of it. [Ed. note: It took a bite out of Vika. See here.]

While that chord isn’t in the original as such, it’s in the music. It’s all the same notes, just organized differently by Vika. That’s what I mean when I talk about great writing. All these superlative qualities exist within “Kaiowas”; they simply needed to be re-organized, perhaps better articulated. The flatted-fifth motif that begins at 0:29 in her version is a real statement, as if to say, “How clever of those Brazilians to put that there!” She allows it to build while teasing the breakdown at 1:20 with her left hand part.

Just like a great actor takes a play to the next level, so a great musician can find greater depths in a song. She hears every gesture, every clever harmonic turn, every moment of drama and focuses on it, re-contextualizing it in such a way that it seems new again. Like the fantastic classical musician she is, her covers make an excellent argument for the increasingly archaic role of the performer as just an interpreter of music, separate from the composer. I can’t stop smiling when I listen to Vika’s covers. They are perhaps the most awesome way yet to show someone that you truly GET metal.

— Alee Karim

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V IS FOR VIKA

Vika official site & store
Buy sheet music transcriptions by Vika

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