Few ideas are as “can’t miss” as a death metal album based on the exploits of Caligula – the mad, debauched and bloodthirsty emperor of Rome. A vicious tyrant rumored to have bedded his sisters, made his horse senator and forced wives of influential Romans into a state-run brothel clearly demands such attention (even more than little miss vanity pants, Lizzy Bathory). Sadly, this isn’t a full-blown concept album focusing on the lord of depravity, but instead covers several hot points in the course of empire, from the Spartacus-led slave revolt, to the Roman military woes in Germania. No matter the specific topic, the wily chaps from Kataklysm saw a market for more Roman-themed metal and their Ex Deo side project is here to deliver the goods. Caligvla (the “v” stands for vomitorium) is the worthwhile follow-up to their Romulus debut and actually surpasses it in several ways. This is bigger, more bombastic and way more symphonic death metal with a focus on battle, death and insanity. The band manages to blend the orchestral pomposity of Septic Flesh with the war metal of Amon Amarth and also splices in some Finnish melo-death riffs straight from Rapture and Insomniun. The result is a swirling shitstorm of self-indulgent overkill and heaviness and when it works, it fucking works! Fortunately, that’s more often than not and this has some truly excellent songs. While it does gets uneven at times, this is an entertaining slice of metallic history that even a mad hatter like Caligula would appreciate.
You won’t wait long to be entertained, as the title track erupts with more testosterone and melodrama than any Spanish soap opera and it’s a riot to hear Maurizio Iacona bellow and roar over the slightly cheesy symphonics and burly riffing. Yes, he overdoes it with his “regal pronouncement voice,” and the drama is thick enough to cut with a chainsaw, but hell, when it Rome…It’s still a well done song and it has a bunch of hooky vocal moments. Things proceed equally well with the ominous and edgy delivery of “The Tiberius Cliff,” which has big, battle-ready riffing and a forward momentum that never lets up. The symphonics are used adeptly to add a creepy atmosphere and it all hangs together nicely (the military march at 2:57 makes me want to join the legion).
But wait, things get better still with epics like “Per Oculus Aquila,” which is a hugely badass monument to epic death that would make Mars beam with pride. The extra heavy death vox during the moody, catchy chorus are excellently conceived and I can’t get enough of the song. “Divide Et Impera” brings in soaring female vocals for a stab at the whole “beauty and beast” genre (et too, Ex Deo?) and they pull it off grandly. The stately grandeur of “Pollice Verso” channels the best (and more linear) moments of Therion and the lead riff is instantly infectious. This one has another big, epic chorus and once again, the super low-register vocals knock it out of the colosseum.
If things kept going in the same direction, this would get a near perfect score. Sadly, the writing tails off a bit from here and although “Teutoburg” is a good song with a great lead riff that Insomniun would kill for, it wanders in too many directions and Maurizio REALLY overdoes the frustrated military commander schtick. The same problem befalls “Along the Appian Way” and “Once Were Romans,” which both bask in manly Amon Amarth war motifs but lack the engaging charm of the earlier material.
As epic symphonic death goes, these guys have a solid grasp on the genre. While this isn’t as artsy-fartsy as Therion or Septic Flesh, like those acts, they embed the orchestration into the meat of the songs so it feels like an integral part and not mere window dressing. Maurizio really throws himself into the material and pulls off something akin to a King Diamond-esque performance, using different voices and styles to impart characterization and dialogue. He growls, screams, bleats and performs super-serious voiceovers and for the most part, it all works, albeit in an occasionaly cheesy way (though I wanted more of his patented mutant goat baby screech). Stephane Barbe and Jean-Francois Dagenais bring the thunder with a succession of big, meaty riffs that impart the feel of war, but they also harness their melodic sensibilities for some truly hooky leads. The entire concept requires a dedication to overblown theatrics and they deserve major props for pulling it off without it sounding like a junior high drama class performing Julius Caesar.
Yes, it’s a front-loaded album and after the fifth track, things get kinda dicey. And yes, it’s a gimmick album of sorts, but it’s still a fun, hyperkinetic listening experience with a healthy dose of originality. Some of the material is worthy of a 4.5 or greater, even if the album isn’t and I’ve been enjoying it for weeks. If you’re getting tired of retro death or re-thrash, this is a great way to cleanse the palate while also paying homage to one of the great pervos of all time. How freaking metal is that?? See you all at the orgy. P.S. Carthage must be destroyed!