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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