The Elusive Language Of Sinistro’s “Sangue Cassia”
Few things on Sinistro's Sangue Cassia are easy to pin down. The guitars are tuned low, and with each note they wobble in and out of pitch until finding their home. During the softer moments, the band leans heavily on electric piano parts that hum with tremolo. At the center of it all is singer Patricia Andrade, floating in and out between major and minor keys and twisting away from the melody to embellish each syllable. The whole album feels like it is on its third glass of wine: confidant, relaxed, and oozing with emotion.
But which emotion, specifically?
Though the record is a resounding success, building on the best parts of the Portuguese band's previous album Semente and tightening their songwriting chops, English-language critics are having a hard time tackling it. As of yet, the album hasn't received much coverage from the bigger names in online metal journalism (MetalSucks, Noisey, Stereogum, etc.) outside of a quick blurb on Metal Injection. Those who have covered the record at length have dealt with the inaccessibility of the lyrics by asking directly for translation help or cracking jokes about the disconnect. This isn't a knock on my fellow critics; I've been just as flummoxed as to how to approach Sangue Cassia's lyrics.
As I see it, there are three routes to take when breaking down a record with lyrics in a language you aren't fluent in:
1. Ignore lyrics entirely and focus strictly on the music.
2. Translate the lyrics as best you can.
3. Make assumptions.
The first two aren't great options but can work in a pinch. Option one is like boxing with a hand tied behind your back. You can hit the record with as many haymakers as you want, but only from one angle. Lyrical analysis and musical analysis work best hand-in-hand. The performance of the lyrics affects their meaning, and the text can shade and contextualize the sounds behind it. Without the ability to combine those techniques, you better hope the record has a glass jaw.
Most metal albums do. While lyrics absolutely matter, the genre's visceral appeal makes it accessible even when words are hazy. It isn't hard to explain the appeal of a well-delivered doom riff, like the ones at the core of "Abismo" or "Carvo Carne." Sinistro have never lacked gut-rumbling power: since their 2012 debut, they've had an aptitude for mixing stone-faced post-metal with harmonically rich reprives. What Sangue Cassia does better than their prior two releases is pace that metallic crunch for maximum impact. Though they rarely stray from their central riffs, their songs are now much smarter about how and when they shift the arrangement to feel new. "Carvo Carne" repeats Semente's trick of riding a repetitive structure to the climax, but here it's never quite as obvious that Sinistro are repeating themselves.
Equally as important to Sangue Cassia's success is how well bassist Fernando Matias's programming is integrated into the mix. No longer do his strings sound like horror movie samples. Instead, they ooze out of the walls of guitar organically, while organs and tasteful rhodes patches bolster the band's atmospheric moments.
All of this can be explained without a single mention of the record's lyrics, but for anyone looking to dig into the details of Sinistro's expression, we'll have to return to options two and three.
Unless you are friends with a native Portuguese speaker, option two means hightailing it to Google translate, almost always a road to catastrophe. This may give the writer a vague sense of what the lyricist is getting at, but it inevitably will punt on the nuances and cultural associations inherent in a native speaker's choice of words. No computer will ever be able to replicate the poetic meaning from one language to another. However, this is far preferable to option three, which leaves the material at hand behind and wanders aimlessly into speculation and the subjective fancies of the writer.
Here is where I must take issue with my contemporaries. Describing Sinistro's music as "semi-erotic" or "whimsical" reeks of shorthand and assumption. Despite nothing in Sinistro's musical or lyrical content denoting anything even close to sexuality, writers continue to assume a level of sensuality in Andrade's performance. One has to wonder whether they felt the same way about Amenra's last album, where Colin H. Van Eeckhout used a similarly soft and intimate tone of voice in his clean singing.
Are we so taken by a woman singing in a breathy melismatic style that we can't actually address what the album is about?
Considering that Andrade spends her time describing "the age of fear" and suffocation, and that the band's videos mostly portray her walking solemnly into the ocean or tearing off her own skin, I find it difficult to believe that my fellow writers are pulling from anything other than their own associations with Andrade's voice.
Because of shorthand, it is easy to mistake Andrade's vulnerability with sexuality, but it's far more accurate to say that Sinistro's music describes a sense of dread and fear. Even "Vento Sul," the album's most sultry track, describes a raven flying south, an image far more foreboding than sensual.
Even these insights stand on uncertain footing. Without an awareness of Portuguese, it's impossible to know what metaphors Sinistro are trading in. The least that conscious listeners can do is understand that the image they get in their head from the music itself doesn't necessarily correlate with the album's lyrical content, or its emotional aims. Sinistro remain elusive, ducking and weaving while landing wallops to the heart in the process.