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Ex Deo - "Caligvla" (CD)

Ex Deo - "Caligvla" CD cover image

"Caligvla" track listing:

1. I, Caligvla
2. The Tiberius Cliff (Exile To Capri)
3. Per Oculus Aquila
4. Divide Et Impera
5. Pollice Verso (Damnatio Ad Bestia)
6. Burned To Serve As Nocturnal Light
7. Teutoberg (Ambush Of Varus)
8. Along The Appian Way
9. Once Were Romans
10. Evocatio The Temple Of Castor & Pollux

Reviewed by on July 11, 2012

"This is one of the best metal albums of 2012."

From the first spin, “Caligvla” will make you ashamed of all the times you’ve lazily uttered the word “epic” to describe a band’s sound. A bold statement, I know, but consider the adjective’s two-pronged definition, according to Merriam-Webster: “Of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic,” and “extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.” In a world where a glut of trendy symphonic metal has outright become the ordinary, and where any contrived storyline can earn the no-longer-special designation of “concept album,” Ex Deo is one of a handful of acts truly deserving of the label. Had this album emerged a mere decade ago, it would’ve dropped jaws the world over. Its colossal grandeur would’ve been impossible to miss.

That’s hardly to say it won’t make an impact in 2012, on the 2,000th anniversary of the notorious Roman tyrant’s birth. However, given the saturated and complacent state of metal today, it took Ex Deo a few steps to attract the world’s attention. Considering the group’s origins in Kataklysm, the Montreal metallers from whose ranks Ex Deo is composed, the debut album “Romulus” (2009) was initially seen as a quirky curiosity. A tentative toe in the dubious waters of thematic gimmickry and vanity projects, a “little brother” spinoff with untested material and an unproven live presence. While markedly different in its musical approach, which traded Kataklysm’s blast beats and traditional aggression for majestic mid-paced marching, “Romulus” nevertheless mirrored its older sibling in its relative straightforwardness. While bound by a historical concept, it was still a mere collection of songs.

“Caligvla” is different. The overall songwriting style hasn’t changed, but boy, has it expanded to massive proportions. Lead track “I, Caligvla” opens with a triumphant horn and choral overture, a dramatic statement unto itself, a dam against the earth-shaking rumble to be unleashed with bandleader Maurizio Iacono’s authoritative bark: “On this glorious day, I declare Gaius Augustus Germanicus Emperor of Rome!” And so begins an appropriately dark, monstrous, lurid, beautiful – and yes, epic – musical observation of one of history’s most extravagant and twisted reigns of power. It builds on “Romulus” the way a proper growth record should, and then some. If the pulsing wall-of-death dynamics of “Cry Havoc” gave you chills, check out “Burned To Serve As Nocturnal Light.” If you waved your arms and banged your head while “Storm[ing] The Gates Of Alesia,” take a stroll “Along The Appian Way.” Meanwhile, the fluid and versatile “Tiberius Cliff (Exile To Capri)” intertwines elements of both.

Additionally, there are some superb highlights and developments here. The galloping “Divide Et Impera” boasts a chorus of heavenly female harmonizing, courtesy of guest vocalist Mariangela Demurtas (Tristania). Likewise, Septic Flesh growler Seth Siro Anton lends his throat to the melodic and heartfelt “Pollice Verso (Damnatio Ad Bestia).” As these songs indicate, and as the vastly increased symphonic backing proves, “Caligvla” consistently blurs the boundaries between aggression and atmosphere, rendering itself simultaneously heavier and softer than “Romulus.” This sweeping range and scope dwarf all that came before, and provide the perfect battleground for Iacono’s charismatic antics – he spends half his time hollering away in spoken word, a bloodthirsty ruler shouting commands from his throne, a cinematic antihero backed by a pummeling score. And forget the guitars: unsung but hardly forgotten, Iacono’s longtime riffmonger (and the ultimate DIY guy in the Kataklysm camp) Jean-Francois Dagenais has completely outdone himself in his superior production. Neither incomprehensibly muddy nor so sharp as to split the eardrums, the mammoth sound he fashions for Ex Deo is a perfect, whole balance of thunder and lightning that makes “Romulus” sound like a tinny demo.

My breathless praise notwithstanding, the sheer scale of “Caligvla” is too vast to fully measure in the space of a few paragraphs, the amount of half-submerged nuances and intricacies too great to fully inventory. Also, while Ex Deo’s ambitions do appear at times to exceed any mere mortal’s capabilities, it’s hard to find fault with virtually anything on this disc. When a band does so much right amidst a banal sea of sameness and still manages to impress, you’ll forget whatever perceived shortcomings might’ve led you to complain in the case of a lesser artist and just bask in the glory. This is one of the best metal albums of 2012.

Highs: Quantum leaps in musical range, songwriting scope, thematic and lyrical bombast, and quality of production. Superior to "Romulus" in every way.

Lows: None.

Bottom line: They came... they saw... they conquered metal in 2012.

Rated 5 out of 5 skulls
5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)