Back in the primordial days of this here blog, we attempted something called “AMG’s Unsigned Band Rodeo.” The basic idea was to select a bunch of unsigned bands and give them the collective review treatment to find the most worthy buried gems. It was our humble effort to remind folks that the metal underground is still an important part of the world of metal.
After several years of self-righteous elitism where we largely overlooked unsigned acts, it’s high time we make amends. And so we’re bringing AMGs Unsigned Band Rodeo back from the dustbins of history with a fresh paint job and a butt-load of new reviewers! Whenever we fucking feel like it, we will pluck a band from metallic obscurity, review the holy Bejesus out of them and leave them to the mercy of you, the fickle masses. At year’s end we will crown the best in show and shower them with accolades, cheap beer and day old sushi. Now that you know the score, welcome to the Rodeo, mofos!
And, we’re back! The first contestant for 2018’s Unsigned Band Rodeo circuit is Cartagena, a symphonic metal band hailing from Tunisia. Formed in 2009, Roma Delenda Est is their 2nd album, which appears to be have been recorded in 2016 but is only now seeing the light of day for reasons unknown. A conceptual album, it tells of the glory of ancient Carthage and the journeys of a warrior who must experience multiple cultures on his quest (for wengeance!). You can learn minimal things about the band on their Facebook page, and as far as we can tell, they don’t have a Bandcamp presence1. Tasked with dissecting this enigmatic opus is Team Sweaty Back, and no, they’re not thrilled with the name. Enough talk, it’s time to ride!
Angry Metal Guy: Cartagena is a combination of sounds that can, under the right circumstances, work together. They play a bombastic, orchestral metal with ‘Oriental’ flavors. With overtones of Symphony X, Wintersun and Orphaned Land, Cartagena attempts an epic concept album worthy of their influences. Unfortunately, their best ideas disappear in execution, obfuscated by composition that is too ambitious for the band’s talents. Nesrine Mahbouli has a good voice, but is produced very badly (sounds like Shakira or Dido). Be it her voice or the production—which moves between passable and bad, depending on the song—she does not work with music this bombastic. Combined with a lurching composition—trying too hard to be ‘progressive’ and not hard enough to write good songs—and the album becomes tedious. It’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot of potential here and enjoyable moments litter the album. But while Roma Dolenda Est may contain promise, it ain’t good. 1.5/5.0
Steel Druhm – Take intriguing bits and pieces of cultural music from exotic places, cram in nu metal-ish riffing and get a soothing songbird to croon over the resulting hodge podge. That seems to be the Cartagena blueprint, and surprisingly, it doesn’t work. Though not awful, their symphonic, Within Temptation-esque candy-coated metal comes across like Ex Deo drained of blood, piss and testosterone. What’s left is pretty for a few scattered moments, but disjointed and messy, never feeling like a finished product. I do enjoy parts of the album, but no particular song, though “Elephants and Wolves” comes closest to working. Other cuts like “Liu Heng” feel like a first pass at songwriting, never intended to be heard outside a rehearsal room. Still, I’ve heard worse and there’s talent here, especially singer Nesrine Mahbouli. They just need to write songs that feel like actual songs instead of outakes from a movie soundtrack by Enya and Zamfir. 2.0/5.0
Dr. Fisting – Nope. Just nope. While Cartagena‘s basic concept (ancient Rome-themed symphonic metal) is pretty great, the execution is anything but. The songwriting veers between “orchestral” keyboard-driven segments and totally mismatched bits of generic modern metal riffage, neither of which result in anything particularly coherent or memorable. Worse still, the wispy and underpowered vocals undermine any energy that might have been, with the singer rarely bothering to push her range or even enunciate. Sure, there are a few moments of quality, most of which unfortunately occur towards the end of the album. Otherwise, this tends to sound like Evanescence with more mumbling, or your neighbor in the camo shorts practicing scales over movie soundtracks. 1.5/5.0
Grymm – Let’s get the interesting tidbits outta the way first: Cartagena hail from Tunisia. Tunisia’s not exactly known for metal, so caps off for representing your homeland. With that out of the way… hoo boy. After not one but two instrumentals opening things up on their second album, three things become abundantly clear. First, the guitars carry absolutely no weight at all, and with progressive metal with intricate instrumentation, you kinda need them to. Second, vocalist Nesrine Mahbouli sounds a bit like Anneke von Giersbergen would after chasing a bottle of Vicodin with a fifth of NyQuil. Not offensive, mind you, but also not engaging. Lastly, the songs go nowhere. Not even the cool Asian motifs in “Liu Heng” could pull this up to enjoyable levels. This is basically Orphaned Land without song structure or flow, or Blind Guardian without the epic bombast. Pass. 1.5/5.0
Diabolos in Muzaka – Quo usque tandem abutere, Cartagena, patientia nostra? Roma Delenda Est sounds like an extended series of aimless introductory pieces. To my ears, vocalist Sherazade Amous is attempting to float ethereally over the instrumentals but instead sounds disconnected and enervated. This could be due to the music she’s tasked with singing over; guitars spend most of their time effortlessly chugging away, and the symphonic elements are anticlimactic. There’s no intensity here, no jubilance or despair, no rush of any emotion; there is nothing but a flat wasteland of utter boredom. Carthage got its magnificent metal due on Ex Deo’ tremendous The Immortal Wars’ A-side; Cartagena’s homage to Carthage is mere overblown decadence with no identity or direction. Roma Delenda Est wanders, stumbles, and condemns itself to obscurity, no salt or Scipio required. 1.0/5.0
El Cuervo – Tunisia’s Cartagena fall into the relatively underrepresented (saving Orphaned Land) metal produce of the MENA region. The function of this Rodeo is to shine light on bands or scenes that may otherwise never breach even the sub-levels of the metal consciousness. It is, therefore, unfortunate that Roma Delenda Est is a terrible delegate for Tunisian music and should not represent your entry point into it. Their brand of symphonic metal balances chugging guitars which are more rhythmic than melodic with an orchestral repertoire which is fairly typical for the style. The crack (gaping chasm) in the keystone is that these guitars could operate to support a symphonic component which undertakes the melodic heavy-lifting, but the symphonic component is itself of a backing nature. There’s no aspect to this album taking responsibility for grabbing the listener’s attention. ‘Offensively boring’ may be a little harsh but only a little. 1.0/5.0
Mark Z. – I went into Roma with low expectations for two reasons: one, I know almost nothing about symphonic metal; and two, before I even listened my peers were already claiming this album wasn’t very good. And while it’s true the prelude’s opening narration sounds laughably like an Aladdin villain, on the whole these 45 minutes aren’t a total loss. Combining tribal percussion, all manner of orchestral instruments, and unexpectedly bassy guitars, Cartagena sound something like Virgin Black dragged back to Roman times. Most notable is the vocal performance of miss Nesrine Mahbouli, whose silky and soulful delivery even hits some memorable hooks on “Elephants and Wolves.” Sadly this is the exception to the rule, as most of Roma wafts along on aimless and ineffective songwriting that only occasionally stumbles across a decent idea. As metallic elevator music it’s decent, but those looking for the next Nightwish best look elsewhere. 2.5/5.0
Huck N’ Roll – Tunisian orchestral metal. And female-fronted – not the prog metal band hailing from the same country. This reeks of AMG clickbait, but I’m a good soldier. For the most part, Cartagena fail to deliver a compelling album here. Weak songwriting reveals itself in the inconsistent arrangements. The mix is awful: the drums and guitars sound poor and Nesrine Mahbouli’s vocals are buried. That might not be a bad thing, though, as she sounds even less interested in presenting these songs than I do listening to them. She has a sweet voice but sounds bored to death. But it’s not all bad here: the orchestral instrumentation is actually quite well done, and the song “Elephants and Wolves” shows a lot of potential. This is their second album, but they’ve got a long ways to go to impress on album three. 2.0/5.0
GardensTale – I’m a firm believer that out there, somewhere, is a female-fronted symphonic metal band who doesn’t try to imitate Nightwish and kicks all sorts of ass. Cartagena has the first part down, but stumbles, falls, rolls down a hill and crashes into a tree on the second. The metal feels like an afterthought to the symphonic, and the symphonic is chaotically written, providing little structure and forgetting about consistent melody. The frontwoman has a timbre that reminds of Anneke van Giersbergen but without charm, enthusiasm, or the ability to stay in key for a whole song. The use of MENA flutes and strings has potential, but it’s executed without a solid plan, moping around behind the middling vocals. Occasionally the band shows potential (“Liu Heng” has a solid start) but overall, Roma Delenda Est finds me tuning out and falling asleep halfway through. 1.5/5.0
SwordJørn – This isn’t really symphonic metal as we know it. Granted, I dislike that label, but I think there’s really a lot more folk-isms here than anything resembling symphonics or true orchestration. When Cartagena is heavy, one might be reminded of Myrath’s earlier work: decidedly North African tonality, vocal stylings, and routine non-standard metal instrumentation. The occasionally staggered riffing is a certain measure of technical, but I don’t believe this would really appeal to the progressive metal crowd, beyond bearing some novelty. The sinuous soprano vocal lines are a pretty distinctive feature, and I’ll grant that Roma Delenda Est doesn’t really sound like much else I’ve heard (outside an odd half-handful of Therion songs, maybe), but this is never something I’d choose to revisit on my own time. 2.5/5.0