The women of Nervosa have already seen enough of the real world to understand terror and injustice. The thrash/death-metal trio from São Paulo, Brazil, hardly need fantasy horror to fuel their songs of aggression and protest, says singer/bassist Fernanda Lira, who describes her moments onstage as feeling something "like a punch in your face."
The band emerged from the mosh pits of Brazil seven years ago, determined to match noisy fury with real stories from home and abroad. "I've been robbed many times, some of them with a gun in my face," says Lira of life at home, sounding excited on Skype during a day off from a small tour of Mexico. "Each country, each continent has their problems and we should respect all of them."
Writing her lyrics, Lira turns to her own experiences and those of real people around her, but also pulls from endless documentaries and books about modern history, and watching 12 Years a Slave or reading the Holocaust graphic novel Maus. "The world is upside down. So many crazy terrible things going on," she says. "We write about real stuff because music is our way of expressing ourselves. I'm not only spitting out all the rage I get when I see unequal stuff around me, but I also want to write stuff that can make people think about that. Change comes from debate and thinking."
Forged in real-life brutality, Nervosa have quietly become one of the most exciting extreme-metal bands in the world, one whose ferocious music matches the savagery of its subject matter, but whose eyes remain locked on a brighter future. On the trio's new album, Downfall of Mankind, Nervosa roar through such protest songs as "Fear, Violence and Massacre," "Raise Your Fist!" and the Portuguese-language "Cultura do Estupro" (translation: "Culture of Rape"). "Never Forget, Never Repeat" includes the message: "No more slavery, no more holocaust, stop civil wars." The title is taken from the common slogan Lira has heard endlessly during speeches and protests. "It's about learning from past mistakes," she says. "History is full of examples we can learn from. We know the result."
The band was founded by guitarist Prika Amaral, and Lira joined soon after, with Nervosa making their debut on record with 2014's thrashing Victim of Yourself. The newest member of Nervosa is drummer Luana Dametto, whose recent past pounding a speedy beat in death-metal acts helped lean Nervosa's sound in a darker direction. The band's last album, 2016's Agony, was recorded in the Bay Area while touring the U.S., but the new one was done at home at Family Mob Studio in São Paulo, with Argentinian producer Martin Furia. It's a modern local studio where King Diamond and Coldplay have gone to rehearse during Latin American tours, but its proximity to the comforts of home was the essential point for Nervosa, removing all pressures and outside chatter to create their newest chapter.
"The only thing that we always do is we try to evolve," says Lira, who reached for a darker, rawer sound on her bass, influenced by her Cannibal Corpse obsessions. On vocals she also branched out, going both high and low, fast and slow, shrieking and howling. "We don't just want to sound exactly the same as the previous album. Otherwise it's no fun."
Lira calls herself a "100 percent South American metalhead" who grew up around the loud sounds her father loved, from classic early metal to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the first generation of thrash. Her father passed on a wide range of metal fanaticism than can be found on the tattoos of names and logos covering her right arm: Slayer, Judas Priest, Kiss, Sepultura, D.R.I. and Black Sabbath.
From there, Lira discovered the next-generation thrash of Nuclear Assault and Behemoth. "Then I listened to the band Death and I was like, 'Oh my God!' Not only are they really aggressive, they are really technical," she says now. "I didn't even know you could make metal like that. I was really impressed."
As a fan, she dove head-first into the local scene, both as careful listener and frontline participant. "I was all about moshing. I would mosh and stage-dive all the time," she recalls with a laugh. "I got hurt bad a couple of times. I hit my head and face on the floor. I would always have bruises."
Once she was in Nervosa, the stakes were higher, and there was one night that Lira did a stage-dive during another band's set, and one oblivious dude failed to catch her. Lira hit her head hard on the floor, and she got up swollen and bleeding. She was dizzy for a week. After that, she retired from the pit for good, not without regrets.
"I can't get hurt badly anymore, or it would be bad for the band," she says. "We're a team now. I'm not that crazy anymore. Sometimes when the show is intense, I really feel like, 'Ohhhh! I would love to be stage diving!' And I have to control myself."
The intensity of her scene in São Paulo stands in contrast with the difficulty of actually maintaining a long metal career in Brazil, or anywhere in economically strapped Latin America. The thrash and groove of Sepultura, and the various experiments of Max Cavalera, are the exception. "To make a living in Brazil and Latin America as a whole, it's pretty tough. Instruments are super-expensive, it's hard to buy strings for your bass, it's really expensive to get a room to rehearse," Lira explains. "That's the reason why you don't hear many bands traveling all the time abroad and playing. It's just too hard. But we've got many bands that have succeed here inside the country and in Latin American countries — and it's growing."
Lira remembers when local metalheads might see only one a major band pass through the country a month: Iron Maiden one month, then Dio a month or so later, etc. Now the concert calendar in Brazil tends to be filled with international touring acts. And Sepultura remains a special inspiration for locals.
"Since I was a teenager and started playing, they have always been important to me because of the message they carry: You can be fucked up and live in Brazil, have a band and succeed," she says. "That message has always been important to me and still is. It's the same for all metalheads and musicians around here. It's important to have a band that represents us all."
If Brazilian metal has a common sound, and certain rhythms that can be heard in Sepultura and other bands, Lira is personally drawn more to an energy and aggressiveness that she says is distinctively Brazilian. She's experienced a similar intensity in certain U.S. and European cities, though other towns prefer to sit back and watch. None of it is quite like home.
"For some reason, some think Latin American metal — mainly from Brazil — is more aggressive," Lira says. "I have no idea why, but I have my theory: Our society here is so unequal, there are so many unfair things going on, that we get so angry and we use our music as our tool of expressing ourselves about all these things that we live and watch and hear every day. Maybe this extra aggressiveness that people think is in Brazilian thrash metal is from this. We spit out all our rage in our music."