The Kataklysm side project Ex Deo focuses on the symphonic side of death metal with a lyrical focus on Ancient Rome. Previous albums concepts dealt with topics such as the Punic Wars, the emperor Caligula and Romulus, the traditional founder of Rome. For their fourth album The Thirteen Years of Nero, focuses on the fifth emperor of Rome.
Nero’s reign had a lot of different facets that songs can be written about, including war, political intrigue, tyranny and debauchery. Concept albums, especially in the symphonic genre, are ambitious and grandiose. It’s about telling a story with drama and tension, a challenge that some bands can do easily, but others struggle with. Ex Deo are firmly in the former category.
Spoken word clips and instrumental interludes are staples of concept albums, and The Thirteen Years of Nero is no exception. Opener “The Fall of Claudius” starts with a speech from Nero’s predecessor, setting the stage musically and lyrically for what is to come. Ex Deo have figured out a good balance between memorable riffs and textured atmosphere, also mixing in spoken word sections on several other tracks.
The symphonic elements certainly set the stage on songs like “Imperator” and “Britannia: The 9th at Camulodonum,” but Mauricio Iacono’s potent harsh vocals along with creative guitar playing from Stephane Barbe and Jean-Francois Dagenais drive the proceedings. New drummer Jeramie Kling (Venom Inc.) gives a strong performance throughout the album, with Clemens Wijers (Carach Angren) in charge of the orchestral score.
“Boudicca (Queen of the Iceni)” features vocals from Unleash The Archers’ Brittney Slayes along with harsh and melodic male vocals. It’s the album’s most compelling song, adding an interesting facet to the style.
The song arrangements are diverse, shifting from mid-tempo grooves to intense death metal to cinematic interludes. “The Fiddle & the Fire” has an acoustic intro before the metal kicks in, while “Son of the Deified” is perhaps the most intense song on the record.
Dagenais also produced the album. Combining symphonic elements with death metal can be tricky, but Dagenais smoothly blends extreme bludgeoning with subtle atmospherics and dynamics. The arrangements are complex, with new revelations unveiled with each listen.
At 48 minutes, The Thirteen Years of Nero is 10 minutes longer than 2017’s The Immortal Wars, but for a concept album that’s a pretty reasonable length. Some of the spoken word parts get to be a bit tedious, and the three-minute interlude “Trial of the Gods” is fairly superfluous, but they don’t lessen the overall impact of the album.
The Thirteen Years of Nero is an album that you can bang your head to, and also learn something from. It’s a well-rounded lesson in Roman history and top-notch symphonic death metal.