History Brought To (Metal) Life
The Thirteen Years Of Nero is the fourth album by Canadian death metal outfit Ex Deo which is a side project started up by Maurizio Iacono from the band Kataklysm to explore the history of the Roman empire.
The band at the moment also features Jean-Francois Dagenais (guitars and production also from Kataklysm), Jeramie Kling (drums from Venom Inc) and Clemens Wijers (orchestration). The album is (no surprise) all about the 13 years that Nero reigned as Emperor of Rome and seems to follow his story chronologically. To give a little background Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (to use his full name) lost his own father aged 2 and due to his mother Agrippina marrying Emperor Claudius he was adopted by the latter aged 13 and made emperor himself at 17 and was dead at 30! Not a long life but certainly eventful.
The album tells this story, and “tells” is the appropriate phrase as there is very little in verses and chorus or even singing at times. It is the story set to black metal music with some fine subtle orchestrations. If only my history teachers would have done something similar I might have learned more! Like both Sabaton and Nile (as the 2 most famous examples) this is history brought to life. The story makes a great black metal record (would work with metal in general to be honest) and is very educational.
Some Crowd Moment Possibilities
The whole thing opens with the end of emperor Claudius’s reign (“The Fall Of Claudius“) via a speech taken from an old movie about his life made in the 30s featuring actor Charles Laughton before an ominous note and riff comes in. It is slow doomy and heavy music which could be used for marching by soldiers on parade. In-between the riffs there is that lovely orchestration as a counterpoint.
One of the few singalong moments comes in this opening track with the refrain “different but good” which is definitely a crowd chant in the making. I also love the choir in the background during that section. Adds plenty of menace! The other main audience participation section is in the second song “Emperor” where the words “reign… forever… Antichrist… worship… forever… Antichrist” are chanted.
The music stomps along but again there are some extra textures this time caused by what sound like keyboards. The mix of slower threatening music with the imperial-sounding orchestrations is excellently mixed. There is the brutality of death metal in the riffs yet at the same time, there is lovely melodies via the orchestration. I also appreciate the simple “hail“s after the title is sung.
Motherly Love, Roman Style
“The Head Of The Snake” is the first really fast track riffage-wise. There is a nice use of what sounds like horns around the main riff. They do work urgency into the score to match what is happening in the story very well. There is some chanting (think similar to Gregorian chants which this predates) in the background too giving a proper air of menace to the piece. Quite rightly as this is about the murder of his own mother (she of course was no saint herself having had others killed so she could rule via Nero herself).
He angrily calls out his mother as the riff gets faster and more intense. “This world is not big enough for the both of us, the gods have spoken” he says. The last part of the track lyrically mentions drowning and stabbing which follows the words of Roman historian Suetonius who said that Nero organized his mother’s death by shipwreck.
However, she survived having swum to shore so he had her stabbed to death instead. He says to her before he has her killed that he is the way he is due to her, she made him the man he was. She was a snake, conspiring and plotting and he learned from her.
Pesky English? Brittney Slayes Enters
The next couple of songs are about battles with leaders in England. The first of those “Boudicca (Queen Of The Iceni)” features Brittney Slayes from fellow Canadian band Unleash The Archers in the title character’s role. There is stomping, clapping and incantations being spoken until the riff takes over. The melody line has the lyrics attached of “can you hear the war cries, can you hear the spirit rise” which is the only hopeful sounds as the war gets more violent and deadly. There is some nice use of tribal drumming around the melody line lyrics. Brittney does her usual grand job of power and emotion during her parts. The “war” chant sounds, well warlike!
They are not scared to allow spoken word to keep the story on track. “Britannia (The Ninth At Camulodonum)” is about a battle somewhere around Colchester (it seems from my reading) where the Ninth Legion suffered a heavy defeat. There is despair in the words, vocal delivery and in the music. With lyrics going “distant are the graves, the cries for help, attacks came from everywhere, from all sides like wild animals… the sound of the dying resonate” you get the idea of how it felt to Nero. The song finishes with the words “legion at the hands of hell… the slaughter of the brave“. The music kind of envelops you into the battle.
Debate Over The Fire
“Trial Of The Gods (Intermezzo)” is a short musical interlude where the orchestral music is mean and moody and the thing builds slowly (there also seems to be some piano touches at one point in the background) and includes some choral work.”The Fiddle And The Fire” is about the fire in Rome of course. It has a rather interesting and atmospheric start with a stringed instrument being plucked along with a tambourine(?). Also, orchestration features violins quite heavily. The song lyrics suggest Nero blamed the Christians for the fire although most historians seem to suggest he was behind it himself for nefarious reasons (perhaps to rebuild the city in his own image). There are mixed historical records and they have chosen one that works for the flow of the album.
“Son Of The Deified” is almost just a series of questions to Seneca his school teacher. He speaks of his love of art and music as compared to his utter hatred and disdain for the senators who he promises to “skin alive” and “wear their faces at gatherings” although these words might be poetic license. On the basis that there are accounts suggesting that he actually kicked one of his wives to death it isn’t out of the realms of plausibility. This is the only song to have a guitar solo which seems unusual for a metal album.
The Ending Is Not Pretty
The music gets more discordant and urgent-sounding as things begin to fall apart for him. With “What Artist This In Me” the music starts to get heavier and darker melodically. Again there are keys (possibly piano) being hit hard, almost harsh and jarring. This works very well in capturing the madness which takes over Nero when he gets near the end of the song his arrogance takes over completely as he roars to the Pretorian guards who have turned on him “your treason will never be forgotten, I am Nero, the antichrist” before starting to laugh maniacally and shouting “I am everything“.
The last song “The Revolt of Galba” tells Nero’s ending after the guards turn at the behest of Galba. The song even names the 2 guards involved. When he realizes time is up he tries to kill himself. He fails so he got his private secretary to finish him off. The music is dense, incessant with eerie keys playing in the background at points. Even when the music drops down you can sense the tumultuous times ahead. After his death Galba took control. However, he would soon be killed by the guard. (He was beheaded and his head was bought by someone and then tossed away). This lead to the chaos of the empire having 4 emperors in a year.
As a historical piece, it flows and it tells the story very well, things are quite easy to follow. Musically the orchestrations are very tastefully done and enhance the piece excellently. I imagine those parts could easily be used in a movie as you would think they were written specifically for the film. The whole thing is composed and executed with great care and absolutely hits the spot. The music matches the moods of the various moments of the account as well as what is happening vocally. This is an excellent adaptation of the story of the legend that was Nero. History truly comes (metal) alive!
Check out my other articles and reviews here, Tom