DARK QUARTERER – Pompei (2020)REVIEW

Columns of fiery pumice, all manner of black volcanic debris ejected as high as the eye can bend via enough heat and gas to produce nearly a full day of hailing stones from the sky. They’d pile up three feet deep, slowly crushing houses and those who could not flee the city within. Columnar blasts eased and crumbled, settling as nuclear events from Orcus’ mouth whilst pouring four cataclysmic avalanches of nearly 600°F gas and ashen death in waves and for miles. Eradication hit the neighboring town first, then their suburbs, and eventually the entirety of the (then) coastal city of Pompei. Anyone who sheltered in place ideally died a quick heat death, their blood boiled and skull burst beyond what was almost assuredly sheer terror. Although further mounds of hidden death could likely be interred it’d be excessive, around eight percent of the considered dead population is accounted for and well, who was buried and preserved? Who saw it coming and perhaps only by instinct made it out alive? There was no Death’s mountain looming prior, just a beloved hill in the distance, they were an incorporated Roman people in moderate crisis under Titus without public water for some uncertain amount of time and likely facing a hard winter looming in October of 79 CE. Their choices amidst disaster left bodies and various other traces to wonder about since, a semi-lost civilization to those glancing over outrageous geological events or dramatic histories, and of course you’ve at least heard of the city and its demise. The truth as we’ve been handed of Pompei rarely speaks the language of its citizenship proper, only recently has some measure of scientific inquiry and the egalitarianism resultant given us a clear enough picture of these people buried to death and immortalized in stone. I pull in this direction of thought because it took a similar shift in mindset, a more enlightened and informed global network, for heavy metal archaeologists to begin to unearth the commoners beneath the soil. We now get to see their graffiti, absorb their cultural value, and experience their esoteric art after years of settling “beneath” the auld popular heavy metal guard.

Lucky enough for us obscure Italian epic heavy/progressive metal band Dark Quarterer reappeared a couple of decades beyond their honorably buried initial spark and even luckier, they’ve plugged away at thier craft for another couple of decades since. Active in some form since the very heat of heavy metal had warmed the world over, the task of summarizing the trip from a late 70’s cover band to one of the most exemplar epic heavy metal bands of the early 80’s is daunting and, to some degree, a history lesson less exciting than this seventh record itself. Without context we’d all be bobble-headed dopes, though, so the major highlights begin in Piombino a comune in the Tuscany region where a heavy metal trio would form Dark Quarterer circa 1980, having renamed themselves to reflect their change from a heavy rock covers band the half-decade previous. The easiest assumption to make here is that their skill level had built to a certain point of professionalism that only Priest and Maiden style numbers would do anymore and they’d just as well write their own songs, which were extended “epic” compositions largely penned by original guitarist Fulberto Serena. We get the rapid evolution of this in their first two full-lengths, quietly released in the late 80’s: ‘Dark Quarterer‘ (1987) being a gritty, unknowing blueprint for the epic heavy metal style popular in Italy these last three decades, this and (my personal favorite) the follow-up (‘The Etruscan Prophecy‘, 1988) represent the exact sort of underground heavy metal gem that often has a longer, more interesting mark upon successive generations not only for its legend but for the joy of unearthing that legend and finding its legacy musically sound. Lofty as its historic fantasy themes and compositional array are, these records speak the language of heavy metal that folks still hunger for and recreate today in terms of keeping it true. Sure, we might remember Manilla Road, Manowar, and a few others better but one listen to this band’s early repertoire and you’ll have all of ’em under the same umbrella today. Our moment, our “prime” often defeats us but the erosion of society’s frail-built walls eventually unites us.

Serena left the band after that second album and he would form his own Etruscan themed band in a similar style (Etrusgrave) around the same time that Dark Quarterer made their comeback circa 2002, just about ten years beyond their only album with guitarist Sandro Tersetti, who doesn’t get enough credit for how good ‘War Tears‘ (1993) actually was for an early 90’s progressive heavy metal album. Before Dark Quarterer could return they’d need an institution well, literally, Woodstock Associazione Musicale to prompt the way forward and this time around with gutiarist Francesco Sozzi and soon after ‘Violence’ (2002) released they’d vitally add keyboardist Francesco Longhi who has played an increasingly important role in the development of their sound since. I certainly didn’t discover the band through these newer albums but rather via the internet’s heavy rotation of their first two albums in the early 2000’s when I’d discovered Adramelch‘s ‘Irae Melanox’ (1988) while searching for an Adramelech album and eventually get a recommendation for Dark Quarterer since I’d liked that album so much. This comes off the momentum of the return of Manilla Road which was absolutely palpable at the time. That said, none of the new albums really hit a stride I’d hook into until the release of ‘Ithaca‘ (2015) an album that’d introduce me to the singular style of Greco-Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy via a concept album based on his work. Sure, give me a stoic and idiosyncratic heavy metal album with progressive heart and I’m all ears but give me a book or two to read along with it and I’ll have it enshrined. We can’t necessarily look back to the Mark I line-up for comparison, it was by another hand. We can’t necessarily look back to the earlier works from this Mark III line-up either, each one intends something entirely different so, in the case of ‘Pompei’ the best context is simply that they’ve matched the subject matter with an appropriately big composition. Big personality, dramatic flair, classic appeal, bombastic professional rendering and well, they’ve mercifully (read: tastefully) kept it all under an hour long.

If you’ve the luxury of growing older and manage the even greater luxury of continuing to educate yourself the world of progressive music is always looming, offering breathtaking flashes of its suggested depth which often amounts to more valuable literary pursuits than actual viably interesting music. In this sense ‘Pompei’ is more than enough of an narrative experience, crafted from multiple human (and geologic) angles, that it is not only a redeeming sitting but dramatic enough as music to be considered innately memorable as its very deliberate peaks express. Of course this means it is fully a concept album nearly five years in development with a theme centered around I tre giorni di Pompei (2016) a work of historical and scientific reference (presented as fiction) from popular science educator and human paleontologist Alberto Angela who illustrates those three days in Pompei from the perspective of (largely) real figures who perished as Mt. Vesuvius buried all in a blanket of ash. No doubt what makes this book interesting, based on reviews in Italian (and a French copy I can barely read) centers around the multiple perspectives offered as well as the historical accuracy applied, keen to the social structure of Roman colonies at the time. Of course Dark Quarterer are (like Angela) attempting to render and represent the tragic unleash of cataclysm upon a Roman city, not just the famous (“Plinius the Elder”) and important but all (“Forever”). — A feat that that so many filmmakers, authors and artists have been attempting for centuries without any mind for those who’d actually died or, how. Yet most of those examples present the events with inaccurate urgencies and histories written by affluent and well-educated people with little care for the rabble or the science of their demise. When we’ve inhabited each of these characters in ‘Pompei’ they are appropriately represented, even the mountain itself.

If you are the necessary measure of sentimental it could be said that a man could look at a mountain once and feel enough for a lifetime. What of the mountain, then? “Vesuvius” is presented as a being in geologic time as sea water seeping through the cracks in the Earth’s crust, exploding as it paths its dormant pyroclasm upward towards relief. The opener tasks itself with one gigantic riff and many supporting actors, including a prominent Hammond-esque organ (see: Hammers of Misfortune‘s ’17th Street’) for the jogging and rocking Deep Purple-esque runs, and perhaps the use of chimes to emphasize the major motif of this song. We’re clearly being shoved headfirst into a cauldron of progressive metal antics here and in this case where we land is well tempered in terms of both arrangement and sound design; The high standards of late 80’s bombast and musicianship carried on without need for silly tricks of sound design and they’ve managed this without lazy groove metal riffs or djent to fill any of the cracks. Of course they must match this energy throughout to make ‘Pompei’ considered any sort of success and this is exactly where a legacy of great works comes into play: We can safely assume, via their impeccable body of work, that Dark Quarterer will completely follow through with this over the top approach for the full ~48 minute run.

It bears some mention how heavy ‘Ithaca’ was with its huge guitar sound, present but not compressed, yet it was the experimental nature of that album that’d made it so charming. Keyboards weren’t as instrumental as they are on ‘Pompei’ but it was their ‘Spiral Castle’ in the sense that they’d even incorporated some growled vocals and various other modern ideas. The years since have built upon this ethos but ensured that it all read as one cohesive great work, so every song as a vital role for the keyboard and the guitar sound is even bigger but beyond that each role finds its uniquely memorable moment via interplay with another or, all at once. “Panic” is the stirring central piece of the symphony presented in this sense, raising the dramatic core of the piece in conveyance of the primal human reaction to natural disaster: Some flee, some freeze in shock, and others find some manner of heroism in helping others no matter how futile the end result ends up being. In terms of musicianship and impassioned performance “Panic” is the big moment of the album where vocalist/bassist Gianni Nepi is at his most insistent and cohesive with the otherwise quite keyboard forward plateau presented at this point. It is a natural endpoint for Side A, just as the plot is fully afire and the classic symphonic progressive rock soul of the album is at peak radiance.

From this point the album is most clearly settling into vignettes of personal experience and it should not be lost upon the listener that these pieces merely use the impending, unknown death that the volcano represents as a device to echo a passion for life that should (probably) arise even without the shove that the challenge of survival presents. “Plinius the Elder” is a love song, complete with a glorious jazz piano interlude, where the historical figure pines for his lover in hopes she will be saved and as it turns out, she was and he wasn’t. This is perhaps the most impressive piece in terms of instrumentation, not only the deft wriggle of the arrangements but their ornate passage from lofty lovelorn hope to flowy rivers of power metallic inflation and ominous chorales. Each piece that follows on Side B becomes increasingly sentimental and yes, despite “Gladiator” pushing a bit of rhythm guitar muscle around these are also the more “challenging” songs in terms of the full oeuvre hanging out at the peak of this veritable heavy metal opera seria. “Forever” lays it on most thick but I figure anyone who’ll make it this deep into ‘Pompei’ will be fully engaged in the sentiment of these very real people obliterated, frozen in stone, and reconstituted as artifacts.

I wouldn’t go into such elaboration if this wasn’t a solid album and for sure it is one of the absolute best, most completely realized records from Dark Quarterer to date. In an age where newer metal fans often appear out of sync with the serious passion of heavy metal and its limitless avenues for personal expression how can you not sit in awe of these folks with nearly four decades of practicum under their belts, pouring with stirring ideas and masterful presentation that is sincere and not at all cheaply commercial. If these true originals have managed to be tried and maintained the will to keep going then I have seen yet another mountain, known another lifetime of inspiration, and verily appreciated every second of ‘Pompei’. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
Info:
ARTIST:DARK QUARTERER
TITLE:Pompei
TYPE:LP
LABEL(S):Cruz del Sur Music
RELEASE DATE:November 6th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [DQ’s]
Cruz del Sur Webstore
GENRE(S):Heavy Metal,
Progressive Heavy Metal,
Epic Heavy Metal

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