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When it comes to symphonic or “epic” metal bands and their style of music, I feel it is possible to make something that is truly listenable. Oftentimes, however, I find that bands get too absorbed in the symphonic or epic aspect and leave somewhat shoddy songwriting left to the actual metal part of the sound, hoping that the former will make up for the latter. To that end, one will run into bands that use bland, simple licks that serve mainly as a backing track to the synthesized strings, leaving the metal listener wanting in terms of the overall sound. Also, one will find bands that get way too into the subject matter and lose all subtlety, creating nothing more than a long, musical statement that reads: “We really love [insert topic here]!” and is frustrating because, while I may share an interest in the subject, I also want to listen to some darn good music.
With “Caligvla,” Ex Deo’s second album, these pitfalls are avoided for the most part. At first, I didn’t think this was so, especially with how bombastic and in-your-face the opener “I, Caligvla” is. Name-dropping Roman figures and other similarly themed lyrics, I thought the band would get completely absorbed in the topic in a bad way, leaving the music in the dust. But the songs immediately following it proved this was not the case. Rather, Ex Deo is able to blend well their symphonic metal and its corresponding subject matter, creating an inviting and thrilling tour through the Roman ranks on the battlefield and history books.
They were able to do this by accomplishing a few key things. First, as mentioned before, they avoided making the symphonic aspect of the music carry all of the weight in the songwriting. Songs like “Cliff of Tiberius,” “Per Oculis Aquila,” and “Teutoburg” balance some good songwriting between hard-hitting, majestic metal guitars and epic-sounding, theatrical strings. Even the guitar solos peppered throughout the album work to serve the whole, not standing out of place or seeming forced.
Second, they were able to make use of the topic without getting too involved in it. As I mentioned, some bands tend to get too enamored by the idea being used and make some careless mistakes. Thankfully, Ex Deo avoids this, successfully crafting songs that are at once immersive in the subject matter and tenable as metal music in their own right. The aforementioned “Teutoburg” serves as the best example of what Ex Deo are capable of making. The music clashes and roars like the very battle itself, gasping for breath at one point where vocalist Maurizio Iacono calls out to the legions. The sneaking in of Emperor Augustus’ line “Varus, where are my legions” was a nice nod to Roman history buffs as well.
Yet there are a few things for which the music can be faulted. The noticeable lack of a bass guitar, which has become commonplace in so many metal bands as to be institutionalized, leaves the songwriting wanting for depth. Iacono’s vocals also aren’t the best, with his yelling a real grate on one’s ears. His yells in the opener “I, Caligvla” were not very convincing, but when he sticks to a more pure, death metal style of vocals, the performance is much better. Unfortunately, there are a number of points where he yells instead of singing to add effect; I find it falls flat more often than not.
All in all, “Caligvla” is a solid offering from Ex Deo, both successful in staying on target with songwriting by balancing out between the symphonic and death metal aspects. While the guitars are a little lacking as well as a bass guitar element, the effect as a whole is undeniably immersive and worthy of its imperial namesake.
Three years after their fiery debut with “Romulus” and just when modern “barbarians” and “soldiers of Rome” alike were about to dub it a one-off experiment with Roman mythology and history, Canadian metallers Ex Deo make a grandiose return to the spotlight with “Caligvla”, a new full length that follows in the footsteps of its forerunner, but only thematically, for stylistically it stretches the boundaries of melodic death metal and sets the bar high for what cinematic metal is supposed to deliver from now on. One complete spin of this album feels very much like watching a movie of epic deployment of forces under Hollywood production; in the end, it’s either a call to arms or to history books: “Legions, engage!”
Released on August 31st 2012 to coincide with and commemorate the 2000th birthday of Emperor Caligula - the epitome of limitless power and madness, the new opus reflects both the sheer brutality and the greatness of Ancient Rome. Ex Deo take the ruthlessness from the battlefield, from the gladiators’ arena, political assassinations and exemplary punishments, and translate it into mind-blowing riffs and unyielding death metal percussion under the firm guttural command of frontman Maurizio Iacono. Symphonic and choral ornaments, elegantly distributed in almost each song so as to fit the atmosphere without becoming excessive, glorify the spirit of the famous legions - protectors of the Roman dominance and expansion, while cinematic features such as battle cries and chaos, movie dialogues, spoken or declaimed passages ensure an authentic feel of the historical episodes evoked.
There is no weak or less interesting track on “Caligvla”, as each allows one particular instrument or a certain vocal feature to gather the most attention, take for example the crushing (and catchy!) guitar riffs of the opener, “I, Caligvla”, the heroic chant vocals in “Per Oculos Aquila”, the thick bass line of “Pollice Verso (Damnatio Ad Bestia)”, the emotional guitar solo of “Along The Appian Way”, the instances of melodic tremolo picking riffs in “Burned to Serve as Nocturnal Light” and “Once Were Romans”, and the list could go on subjectively... Nevertheless, “Pollice Verso (Damnatio Ad Bestia)” has all ingredients to be perceived as the perfect symbiosis of death metal harshness and symphonic grandeur, with an evanescent, much too subtle violin intervention and of course, with thunder-like backup in the growls department from Seth Siro Anton (Septicflesh) himself. As a matter of fact, “Caligvla” features further guest artists summoned to pay homage to their Latin roots: guitarist Francesco Artusato of All Shall Perish, singer Mariangela Demurtas of Tristania and vocalist Stefano Fiori of Graveworm.
The album’s artwork was designed by Seth Siro Anton in his unmistakable and highly intriguing style and invites to interpretation beyond the obvious protective presence of Jupiter (“Jove”) on the rider’s shield and the absence of both gladius and the hand to carry it.
With the release of “Caligvla”, Ex Deo have clearly outgrown the status of side project, marching forward as a mature band with a focused message: Ancient Rome’s power and influence - “Roma caput mundi”. Before asking yourselves whether they will succeed in shifting the focus from the Viking saga or what the next Ex Deo album will revolve around, just enjoy their current offering, which seems to be quite enduring.
- originally posted in Beyond the Dark Horizon (www.beyondthedarkhorizon.com)
Symphonic death metal is an interesting prospect. Few projects have attempted such a marriage, and even the more popular examples, like the somewhat tedious new work from Fleshgod Apocalypse (tech death channeling Dimmu Borgir, sans depth), have not been anything to write home about. Perhaps everyone just fears being grouped in with horrifying atrocities against music like Winds of Plague, surely an understandable concern. However, the concept is one of stunning potential, as evidenced by unique, inspired entities such as Septic Flesh. Italians Ex Deo, composed of the entirety of Kataklysm, plus bassist Dano Apekian (from Ashes of Eden), have unleashed their second effort, Caligvla, and it’s one of the strongest forays into this largely undiscovered universe I’ve yet heard.
Right out the Coliseum gates, Caligvla is an unrestrained and grandiose beast, utilizing the prevalent orchestration to sweep the foundation of the bands instrumentation up toward the heavens. It’s not used as a gimmick, but rather an essential part of the inherent atmosphere, and the result is a heart-pounding, fist-pumping exercise in pure triumph. The band also never leans on the symphonic presence as a crutch, as they have crafted a number of suitably triumphant riffs and leads to carry the songs forward, and they shift between leading and supporting roles easily. We’re looking at a host of mid-paced war marches, though Ex Deo also integrate a bit of blasting to liven things up. In fact, the overall vibe is similar to that of Kreator’s new opus Phantom Antichrist, tenacious and rather overtly melodic, with a sense of vibrato and scale that imparts epic mental imagery to the listener. It may not be quite as diverse and memorable as that album, but it hits the same chord in the spirit, spurring you on to fight for honor and glory.
I’ve mentioned the riffing, and indeed there is a gaggle of progressions here that suitably impart the burning spirit of ancient Rome, at least as far as a laid-back gringo like me can visualize. It’s difficult to adequately explain, but the flavor of the chords just feels right, just feels so fitting to the thematic content of the lyrics, as this concept album is a romp through battle-blazing history, focused on the exploits of Caligula. This record feels like a journey, like the score to some high-grossing historical bloodbath like Gladiator or 300, but inescapably fucking metal. Like most albums, you’ll glean a lot more form it if you can find some time to focus in on the lyric sheet. It doesn’t hurt that they’re delivered with undeniable passion and force, as the vocals of Maurizio Iacono are stronger than they’ve ever been; primal, panoramic shouts echo across the distance, letting the enemy know that doom is at hand, before splattering their skulls with his percussive, lugubrious snarls.
Production is slick and full-bodied (much better than on Romulus), and you’ll hear no complaints here, beyond my endless &%#$*$%&%ing recitation of wanting to hear the bass guitar. I mean, am I the only one who finds this a constant irritation in metal? Is something wrong with my ears? I just can’t understand how anyone could allow their performance to be so utterly neutralized, or how bands could think this serves their sound. Sometimes I can hear it pulsing away, but the guitars either absolutely bury it, or render it pretty indistinguishable. Lame.
Really though, if you like epic metal, you cannot go wrong here, not in the least. Caligvla is simultaneously dark, uplifting, ferocious, and endlessly theatrical, lending fantastic mental imagery. The riffs are good, the songs are well-written, constructed to build and explode as they progress, and there’s a good amount of variety and surprise in the melodies and delivery (the female vocals in Divide Et Impera send the spirit soaring). Caligvla breaks pretty far away from the established tendencies of death metal, but on a basic level, it remains true to the basic aesthetic precepts of Kataklysm, a sort of lumbering force that could surely batter you into the ground if they so chose. Not all of the hooks are worthy of immortality, and the pace gets just a tiny bit monotonous at some points, but those are pretty minor complaints in the face of such complete solidity.
This record may not quite reach the realms of Jupiter, but it towers high nevertheless, hitting as hard as Vulcan and impaling enough enemies to make Mars blush with pride. Caligvla is fitting tribute to its chosen content, a rather unique, stirring conglomeration of influences, and should appeal to a wide range of metal fiends, so I bid you to give it a chance. Anyone who likes their metal resoundingly epic, or historically seasoned, lyrically and melodically, will undoubtedly find Caligvla a winner. When all the myriad strengths come together, as you’re basking in this dark, epic, compellingly dense atmosphere, and Iacono proclaims ‘Today is a good day to die’, the shiver up your spine makes it hard to disagree.
-Left Hand of Dog
It feels like a small eternity has passed by since Monteral based symphonic death metal group Ex Deo were first unleashed upon the world with their debut album, Romulus, but in reality it's only been three years; the band having formed in 2008 and released their first album in 2009. The Ex Deo fleet are made up of the current Kataklysm line up with keyboardist Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc and bassist François Mongrain thrown into the mix. In 2010 Kataklysm released Heaven's Venom, which took the band on a year long tour all over the world. Most recently, they've been hard at work promoting the five disc DVD set Iron Will, and audiences have been seeing Ex Deo pushed to the back lines in terms of new content. Finally, the end of last year saw numerous signs that began lifting Ex Deo out of near hiatus status and a new album has finally come to fruition. Has Caligvla been worth the tedious wait?
Anyone familiar with Kataklysm/Ex Deo lead singer Maurizio Iacono will know that he has a deep rooted passion for his Roman heritage, and this shines as bright as the sun reflecting from the straight blade of a gladius throughout the entire content of Caligvla. From beginning to end there is an unstoppable epicness produced by synthetic horns, choirs and other effects via keyboards, that makes the album more theatrical than anything else. It's easy to imagine in the minds' eye a visual movie to this audible experience filled with gladiator battles, legions of war and profound cruelty of a leader. There is a dark overtone that wraps itself around the material as it focuses on the cruelties and torments which the Roman Emperor Caligula caused in his short four year reign that eventually came to an end when he became the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated.
The general song composures are made up of your basic death metal formula; blast beats, tremolo picking, growling vocals, some double bass drumming and rolls, and a good mixture of tempo changes. The guitars give a chugging, daunting sound that feeds the content an even darker feel alongside the keyboards. This is enhanced by the scattered, fast tremolo picking of a secondary guitar. Maurizio's vocals possess an ever growing black metal style to them, which stands powerful throughout the entire content. This man has really poured his essence into these vocal tracks and it seeps from every anguished cry he gives. Max's drumming skills are still as tight, fast and melodious as ever and provide a great backing track to everything. This group has always worked together flawlessly in Kataklysm, and it carries over well to Ex Deo. Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc does an amazing job with the keyboards, and the orchestral compositions are very complex and melodic. Often, they set the main hooks of the songs and do leave a heavy, memorable lasting impression once everything is said and done, but the keyboards could have been put to a more effective purpose rather than becoming a borderline overbearing element and instead used to emphasize more powerful areas of tracks.
Some of the stronger songs found here are "I, Caligvla" which starts the album with a noble styled keyboard intro that almost sounds like something that would come from In Sorte Diaboli from black metal group Dimmu Borgir. "Divide Et Impera" which has an incorporation of three other backing vocalists, one being a female, and is also one of the heaviest and more melodic songs on Caligvla. "Burned to Serve as Nocturnal Light" is also a track well worth mentioning, in that up to this point in the album most of the solos are fairly lackluster in comparison to what the band are actually capable of. Within this song lies the solo with the fastest scales mixed with fluid sweeps and tapping that could melt the very armor of the Roman enemy. "Once Were Romans" and the instrumental last track, "Evocatio: the Temple of Castor & Pollux", are also songs that stand out and are worth mentioning.
Overall, Caligvla is an enjoyable experience. Especially for those enthralled with Rome and all the history that lies behind one of the mightiest empires in the world's history. The production values are crisp and clear, however sometimes the mixing seems to be a little left speaker heavy, but this only occurs during a few songs and could be fixed in the future by mixing the lead guitar that's left in the right speaker a little higher since it comes across too soft. The composure of the material as a whole is incredible, but heavily reliant on keyboards and synthesized sounds. This isn't a far step up from Romulus, and the sound here hasn't progressed or changed much, but it's still a great release by Ex Deo worth many repeat plays.
- Villi Thorne