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Formed in 2008, Ex Deo is officially a side project of Kataklysm frontman Maurizio Iacono, who seemed to want to reconnect with his homeland’s glorious past. However, a glancing inspection at the band’s line-up confirms that Ex Deo is, in fact, Kataklysm under a new name since all current band members are in both bands. Ex Deo’s first album is titled Romulus after the legendary founder of the city of Rome in the eighth century BC, and consists of death metal with a modern edge, similar to Kataklysm’s last two albums’ sound but different in atmosphere due to its particular lyrical subject and keyboard usage. To those who haven’t grasped the massive amount of signs leading to this, Romulus is a concept album dealing with the Roman world in all its aspects and is, overall, a rather good release.
The album kicks in with its first single, the title track, a complex piece which relies heavily on the use of keyboards for create its special atmosphere. It’s death metal, but heavily reliant on elements unorthodox to the genre, most notably the aforementioned keyboards and a high amount of pace variation: the songs alternate often between mid-paced, slow and extremely fast sections. Sometimes this approach works to make the album’s atmosphere epic and perfect; sometimes it just gets tedious and annoying. Thus the main feature of Romulus, its strange overall structure, is what makes it both interesting to own and listen to yet at the same time is its Achilles’ heel. The opening title track is fortunately one of the successful songs, being generally slow-paced with a slightly faster section during the chorus. As mentioned before, it deals with the founding of Rome by the legendary twins, Romulus and Remus, and of the latter’s slaying at the hands of his brother in 753 BC. The second song, Storm the Gates of Alesia, is an all-out war song, fast-paced and insanely epic, reminiscent of Amon Amarth’s attempts at such songs but with the unmistakable Kataklysm twist to it. And reminiscent of a war song it should be, because it deals with one of the most important battles of Antiquity, that of Alesia, where in 52 BC Julius Caesar sealed Gaul’s fate as a Roman province for the following five centuries. Massive thundering riffs and mid-paced blast beat-ridden drumming make the perfect soundtrack for a song commemorating this event.
The album is from then on composed of songs which take the same usual elements of death metal, adding the same keyboards from atmosphere with some clean spoken passages on occasion. Cry Havoc is particularly a highlight in this regard, having a huge spoken part in the middle which is done perfectly, sounding like the portion of a theatrical play and actually making it epic and being the peak moment in the mostly slow-paced song. In Her Dark Embrace is another highlight, being another very aggressive and monumental track which particularly demonstrates Max Duhamel’s excellent drumming skills as well as Maurizio Iacono’s great voice and range. His growls are pretty consistent throughout the whole album and are the main reminder that this band is, in fact, Kataklysm with another name. The final and most amazing song here is undoubtedly Legio XIII, I.E. The Thirteenth Legion, the one with which Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, precipitating the civil war from which he emerged as Rome’s Dictator for life. What makes it so great is that it’s another war-related track, standing perfectly as one of those “before the storm/armies gathering” tracks, comparable in this regard to Amon Amarth’s Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags both in theme and structure. The right kind of drumming is essential here, as it’s used, along with the keyboards, to create the perfect battle atmosphere. The guitar work is overall excellent, contributing much to the whole Roman and warlike ambience from beginning to end, and there’s even a great, unmistakable death metal-like solo in the middle of Cruor Nostri Abbas.
Most other songs are good, if unremarkable in some cases, except for Invictus which is plain boring due to it being a slow-paced track which just plods around aimlessly for almost seven minutes. This general trend of unremarkable material is especially true around the end of the album, centered on the almost as useless (but still slightly more interesting) Surrender the Sun. The album’s overall concept is probably the thing which goes furthest in making it desirable, since it’s varied and centered on the First Century BC (the era of the civil wars), with, among the subjects mentioned above, The Final War (Battle Of Actium) dealing with Octavian’s victory over Marc-Antony at Actium in 31 BC and aspects of Rome’s pagan religion, as is visible from the (very brief) lyrics and titles of tracks such as the album’s ending, The Pantheon (Jupiter's Reign). The subject is generally treated in an intelligent and well-written way, unlike other bands that can’t seem to deal with concepts competently or maturely. They even took samples from HBO’s epic but unfortunately rather short-lived TV series, Rome, such as Marc-Antony’s line at the beginning of Legio XIII.
The feeling the album leaves after a spin is basically one of inconsistence even if it generally is of decent quality. There are definite and incredibly good highlights, and unremarkable middle ground and a few extremely boring moments. This is basically a good reflection of Kataklysm’s career, which contains both excellent music and some lame crap. That said, Romulus is a good effort and is definitely worth obtaining for its interesting and unique place in today’s metal world, especially for those who, like me, have an interest in Roman history.
Ex Deo is essentially a side project of Kataklysm; and refreshing at that, since the Canadian veterans have been sagging on the past few albums of that other entity. Romulus is a concept album forged in the fires of Roman myth, folklore and history, and one of the better metal works to have yet mined the subject. Stylistically there is little in common with Kataklysm aside from the simpler riffing, but Romulus is a focused effort which succeeds more often than not.
The use of keyboards to create an historic atmosphere is not quite the novel concept, but here a form of 'epic death metal' has been created which suits the conceptual material. Big riffs and big tones glaring from the synths, like the midday sun off the tips of Imperial spears as the legions march toward their next conquest. The title track leads off the album, an immersive and primitive bludgeon that introduces the listener immediately to just how this album is going to play out. I personally enjoy the martial, orchestral breakdown at the 3:20 mark. "Storm the Gates of Alesia" saunters forth with a driving, melodic riff under a sparsely tolled bell, as the chugging verse explodes with its dual vocals you know you're in worthy war metal territory. "Cry Havoc" rocks hard in the verse, subtle synth textures weaving a glorious gravitas. "In Her Dark Embrace" is laden in doomish melodies, the sorrow of countless battlefields on an eternal road to glory. Other strong points include "Blood, Courage and the Gods that Walk the Earth" for its melancholic death and doom, and the flowing "Surrender the Sun" which has grown into my favorite track on the album.
The album sounds sufficiently bombastic, and the members of Kataklysm have more than enough talent to handle these simpler compositions. Maurizio Iacono combines death and black vocals quite naturally to create a legion-like feel to the lyrics. Barks of anguish, guttural grunts and battlefield cries mesh well over the endless march of the rhythm section. Lead melodies are sparse and used completely in context. There are a few guest spots on the album, including Karl Sanders on guitar ("The Final War") and Nergal on vocals ("Storm the Gates..."), but you barely notice. Romulus isn't necessarily a great album, but it's solid enough that it should appeal to fans of all manner of 'epic' sounding metal. The subject matter may differ from Amon Amarth, Thyrfing or Turisas, but the effect is largely the same, a celebration of European history and folklore with some hard hitting metal accompaniment. Ex Deo is fun for a few listens, and a project I hope these gentlemen return to.
A side project of the band, Kataklysm, Ex Deo is a little-known newcomer for the time being, but their debut album, Romulus will definitely put this band on the map in the months to come as one of the most interesting and well-versed projects on the history of the greatest empire to rule the Earth. Since I’m not a fan of song by song reviews, I will review a few of the most exemplary songs and leave the rest to the listener to decide.
The title track, Romulus begins the album with the sound of rushing wind and a great double bass, cymbal, and snare combo as the main riff kicks in. The lyrics describe the feud between Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome raised by a wolf who began the dominion of the ancient empire. It is obvious that the band understands much of the history of Rome, but at times the lyrics have a feel that they used cliff notes rather than written history to explain the legends, histories, and events that they catalogue throughout the album.
The second song, Storm the Gates of Alesia, is about my favorite battle in Roman history. During this battle, Caesar attacked the final Gallic settlement of Alesia in today’s France. He surrounded the city and entrenched his soldiers to prepare for a nearly decade-long battle as Vercingetorix, the final Gallic king, mustered one hundred thousand men to attack Caesar’s ramparts. The battle was vicious, bloody, destructive, and resulted in thousands upon thousands of dead. Ex Deo captures the brutality of the battle throughout the entire song, the vicious riffing, drumming, and screeching vocals pound the point home. The chorus involves a beautiful melodic riff as the Centurions and Cohorts defend their honor and their lives though they are in such a seemingly hopeless situation. Unlike most band that focus on the honor and glory of fighting as a Viking, or any other tribesman that fought to destroy Rome, Ex Deo unleashes the power of the entire Empire on the metal community to explore their contributions to history and the honor that many bands in metal today focus on and explore. The song breaks for an epic interlude of raging battle, screaming hordes, trumpets, and choruses as fifty thousand Roman Centurians are engulfed by 250,000 Gauls until the song centers back into the band chanting until another chorus which continues until a reenactment of Caesar yelling, “I declare Gaul a province of Rome” and a chant of Vini, Vidi, Vinci (I came, I saw, I conquered).
The drums are the only instrument lacking in this release. The drum is not as inventive or trying to add to the ambiance of each song compared to the scene-stealing guitars or the well produced vocals, but at times they do accentuate the power of this release and pummel the point home of the song. Still, at too many other times the drums are continuing the same few beats rather than filling empty spaces, or showing off the true power that the man behind them, Max Duhamel, can unleash. Most songs have the same bass and drum combined chug in them that gets really repetitive at times, but in some songs works perfectly like in “Cruor Nostri Abbas” where the drums and bass leave the only semblance of the same song in them as the rest of the band changes over to different riffs, keyboard sounds, and vocal styles.
As stated above, the drums and bass in “Cruor Nostri Abbas” go well to keep the pace of the song, but are not very inventive. This is not due to laziness of the drummer and bassist, though. This dynamic song involves one of the most interesting keyboard mixes of what sounds like Roman chanting and some great melodic riffing until the first stanza of lyrics join a fray of deadly chugging up to the point that a brigade of trumpets become enveloped in the struggle. The song then involves a chant of its title, “Cruor Nostri Abbas” (Cruoris of Our Father) which is overshadowed by another very melodic set of riffing as the drums and bass keep the pace of the now disappeared song. The song continues in this fashion to its end except for a solo break, but is interesting throughout and definitely shows off the power of Ex Deo’s songwriting, their command of the dead Latin language, and their understanding of how the Romans valued the lands they conquered as well as cherished the blood they spilled for those lands.
Surrender the Sun is a song about the Gladiatorial games and how it would feel to be a slave in the Roman Coliseum fighting for his life on a daily basis for the entertainment of the mob. The song explains his loss of faith challenging Roman and secular religions, the trials he must face, and the fear he constantly fears when facing his opponents. The guitars again are very prominent in the song with melodic combined melodic riffing going into heavy chugs. The song has a slower tempo than many of the other songs on this release, but on this track the main focal point is the lyrics examining how a Gladiator would feel during the ordeal that had become his life.
The release ends with a very Romanesque instrumental that leaves the listener reflecting on the history that has been explored in this album and the understanding that any great empire will eventually disappear as has the Empire of Rome. Nevertheless the instrumental is also very epic and gives the feeling of foreboding going into the future. Ex Deo’s look at Rome in Romulus has come to be one of the most interesting musical depictions of any civilization that I have heard in a long time. This release reminds me of bands like Nile and Amon Amarth who have in their own way resurrected the ancients and shined a new musical light on their cultures. The brutality that is always described by historians of ancient life is finally put to the most brutal form of music and Ex Deo has now joined Nile and Amon Amarth in perfecting the pattern of examining ancient cultures through death metal.