Review: Ex Deo “Romulus”

Today, I’m gonna do something I never do – I’m going to write a short, short CD review.

I’m not a huge Kataklysm fan – I’ve seen them perform live, have interviewed frontman Maurizio Iacono and have heard plenty of their songs and albums – but they just don’t grab me. They’re not terrible, certainly … but they’re not not at all memorable, either, at least not to me.

So, I find myself pleasantly surprised by Ex Deo’s “Romulus,” Iacono’s side project/concept album. It’s a bit corny in places – and aren’t almost all concept albums just a little hokey? – but the strong music and Iacono’s vocals save the day.

A word about the concept: As the title suggests, “Romulus” is a mishmash, whirlwind tour through Roman history, focusing mostly on Julius Caesar. As history, I can’t vouch for the accuracy: The songs seem to jump back and forth in time and “Surrender The Sun” seems more influenced by the movie “Gladiator” than anything else. But so what? If you want Roman history, go read a book.

But the project was apparently intensely personal to Iacono and the man sells the disc with his performance. Iacono wrote all the material and bellows his throat out.

ExDeo_Romulus_300

The songs are well written and arranged – “Surrender The Sun” has a Maidenesque twist that reminds me of “Powerslave” – and Iacono mostly nails the larger-than-life vibe he’s attempting to achieve throughout. Almost all of the tracks are fun, with only “The Final War (Battle Of Actium)” dragging the album down a bit.

The best tracks are the epic “Romulus,” Surrender The Sun,” “Storm the Gates of Alesia,” “Cruor Nostri Abbas,” “Cry Havoc” and “Invictus.” Meanwhile, “In Her Dark Embrace,” “Legio XIII” and “Blood, Courage And The Gods that Walk The Earth” more than hold their own.

The final track, “The Pantheon (Jupiter’s Reign),” is pretty much an extended outro and doesn’t count as a metal track in my book. So the final tally is nine very solid songs, one so-so song and one skippable outro. Nine scores out of 11 attempts is pretty much a victory for Iacono, I’d say.

In terms of performance, the band – guitarists J-F Dagenais and Stephane Barbe, bassist Francois Mongrain, drummer Maxime Duhamel and keyboardist Jonathan Leduc – is certainly up to the task. Dagenais and Barbe aren’t given too much to do – although they are given room to shred impressively on “Blood, Courage And The Gods That Walk The Earth” – and the rest of the musicians turn in solid performances. Iacono’s vocals are the best part of the disc, which again surprises me: Perhaps there was something to Kataklysm that I missed all those years?

There are a few drawbacks, but they were mostly caused by the low production budget. Iacono wanted a big sound, but had to use keyboards for his orchestrations and choruses. As a result, the orchestra and chorus sound rather plastic. I’m left to wonder how much better “Romulus” could have been had the funding been available to work with a real symphony orchestra. Couldn’t Iacoco and Nuclear Blast find an eastern European orchestra down on its luck and willing to sit in for a few bucks? Also, “The Pantheon” goes on longer than necessary, but it’s easy to just hit the “skip” button and move on.

I have one other quibble. Occasionally, Iacono does some spoken – well, shouted – work that’s a little goofy. Listening to Iacoco scream, “By order of the Senate! I command you to fight until death!” or “I declare Gaul province of Rome!” or “Remus! Defy me and I shall strike down upon those who defy me!” causes me to giggle a little bit. I know, he’s trying to be dramatic, but the spoken word dialogue is rather silly. Sue me.

I promised a short review, so I’ll wrap up by saying “Romulus” is an entertaining piece of death metal, which showcases Iacoco’s prowess as a vocalist and songwriter. I wish Kataklysm albums were this impassioned.

For a taste, here’s the video for “Romulus.” You can also hear more by visiting Ex Deo’s MySpace page.

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