Ex Deo are a unique outfit. Where do you draw the line between a full-time band and a side project? All four members of Kataklysm are in Ex Deo, although drum colossus, Oli Beaudoin, departed from the former in 2020 yet remains behind the kit for Ex Deo. Imagine if Gojira started a new project and all four of them agreed to participate and rally around Joe Duplantier’s more monographic scientific concerns?
Kataklysm frontman, Maurizio Iacono, is the heart of Ex Deo and the chief chronicler of Imperial Rome’s glorious history through the medium of death metal. After 2017’s The Immortal Wars, we’re now at the tail-end of the Julian-Claudian dynasty with the rise to power of the perverted psychopath, Emperor Nero. As fans of the epic I, Claudius BBC drama, Ex Deo start The Thirteen Years of Nero with the poisoning of the fourth Roman Emperor in 54 AD and waste no time in launching into a sinister crunch of imperious death metal with Morbid Angel’s signature malevolence and Kataklysm’s trademark double-kick drums. The keyboard symphonies and emotive piano splashes are far more subtle than you’d expect, mainly to give the floor over to Iacono’s muscular narrative. At six minutes in length, it never loses its thrust or squanders its imperious might. JF Dagenais’ throws in some mouth-watering pinch harmonics to remind you that this is a headbangers’ ball as much as a conceptual piece.
As a depraved individual yet successful populist, Nero continues to attract attention as one of history’s most studied heads of state, and with good reason. This allows Ex Deo to enhance the sinister aspects of their death metal groove like Septicflesh at their most majestic and fearless. There’s something wrong with you if you’re not chanting “Imperator – Hail! Hail me as the tyrant God!” in the chorus to track number two. The brooding horn section swaying beneath the death-thrash rhythms and violent drum work in ‘The Head of the Snake’ reminds you that conceptual metal need not be cliché-ridden or comical. “You whispered lies to me/ You whispered words of deceit/ And I remember everything,” roars Iacono, in character as the young Nero spurned during his youth by those that thought him a pampered fool.
Maybe the excellent ‘Boudicca (Queen of the Iceni)’ is the nearest they come to pompous with a thespian declaring that “Britannia must be annexed by orders of Emperor Nero under the prudent guidance of Seneca.” Yet this track is a blood-thirsty composition of chugging guitars and double-kick frenzies with Unleash the Archers’ Brittney Slayes illuminating the chorus with her monumental mezzo-soprano voice. On repeat listens, you still cannot decide if Ex Deo get the most out of her cameo performance – maybe not when you consider this woman is the greatest singer in the world. But it still does the business.
Septicflesh provide the nearest musical comparison and Kataklysm the foundations, but Ex Deo are no strangers to expanding their sound. ‘Britannia 9th Comuldonum’ [sic] is like Carach Angren with a thicker guitar tone, while Sepultura’s underrated 2006 album, Dante XXI, springs up on more than one occasion. Listen to Oli Beaudoin’s precise sixteenth-note grooves on ‘What Artist Dies in Me…’ and marvel at JF Dagenais’ inventive death-doom riff as it leans into the bite of a dissonant chord at the end of each bar. You could be forgiven for thinking the punch of the guitars might take a backseat to the narrative and power of Iacono’s vocal delivery, but The Thirteen Year of Nero is an undisputed metal album before anything else.
“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” is an iconic saying still heard to this day, and it’s no surprise that Iacono devotes a song to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD that many believe led to the death of Peter the Apostle (yes, the man who was a disciple of Jesus) in the subsequent persecution of Christians that followed. It would be strange to leave this out of the action even if some of these events are now disputed by revisionist historians. Here, Ex Deo handle ‘The Fiddle & The Fire’ with the inflamed passion and hot-headed aggression it deserves by doffing their caps to My Dying Bride in the intro and transforming it into a Fleshgod Apocalypse carnival for the chorus. How can you dislike something as animated as this?
Though it invalidates the need for Kataklysm to experiment with symphonies or avant-garde ideas, Ex Deo is more than just a side project. This is a serious piece of work, and one that will have you reaching for your I, Claudius box set and Tacitus histories in no time.
Release Date: 27/08/2021
Record Label: Napalm Records
Standout tracks: The Fall of Claudius, Britannia 9th at Comuldonum, Son of the Deified
Suggested Further Listening: Septicflesh – The Great Mass (2011), Triptykon – Melana Chasmata (2014), Sepultura – Dante XXI (2006)