ACID AGE – Semper Pessimus (2021)REVIEW

Farewell, but make no music; commit murder, but write no verses; poison people, but dance not; be an incendiary, but play not on a cithara. This is the wish and the last friendly counsel sent thee by the — Arbiter Elegantiae.” Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero

We cannot entirely fault the young neckbearded Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for his reaction to the scheming height of an already treacherous, tyrannical dynastic reign he’d been thrust into. An absurd choice as a hardly groomed, ill-tempered seventeen year old, he was lucky to have lived through his thirteen year end-chunk of the ~95 year reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in Rome. He made history through not only debauchery but freshly treacherous highs that’d disturbed all, or enough that his opponents and successors would leave nothing less than a trail of horrors in remembrance of his reign. The true context of Roman societal norms, class division, slavery, and the religious implications of the Emperor role alongside the previous standards set by his successors does tame some of the melodrama indulged in the name of Nero yet we can nonetheless conclude he’d been a fucking spectacular failure, and an inhuman mess when tallying his many tribulations. Inspired by both historical truths and classic depictions of the ill-remembered emperor, Northern Irish progressive death/thrash metal trio Acid Age have concocted what is perhaps one of the most enthralling and properly thrashing additions to anno 2021 CE in ‘Semper Pessimus‘ thier tragedian heavy metal illustration of Nero’s thrill-ride reign of death, civic inferno, and dramatic suicide. It is not only a fine and most detailed example of riffcraft, full of their own ‘old school’ tech-thrashing stylistic verve but a deep cut unto itself that speaks to the best traditions of underground thrash metal.

This is a weird one to start and no doubt even the most die-hard thrasher might not get it at first but, if you stick with ‘Semper Pessimus’ and let it rip, Acid Age will inevitably convince you of this great work. Formed by musician Jude M. circa 2013 for a self-recorded/writ demo (‘Cyborg Thrashterpiece‘, 2013) Acid Age would soon include fellow members of his short-lived metalpunk band Damageflag and bassist/co-vocalist Jake M. starting with a Gama Bomb-esque high speed classics inspired punk n’ rolling thrash metal band. Even if you might see their early work as non-serious party thrash at face value by the time their first album (‘Drone Shark Ethics‘, 2014) landed the inside jokes and cartoon art weren’t masking the hyper-sped thrash style they were kicking around, a bit of Wehrmacht and their own homebrewed style meant tons of ideas at a rapid pace that’d already had an ear for keeping it moving via variation. The band lands upon a professional standard with 2016’s uh, ‘Like a Runaway Combine Harvester in a Field of Crippled Rabbits’, where technique and meter had been fully sorted out while Jude M.‘s interest in rock, punk and such had a bit of a Mustaine effect on the otherwise aggressive, grinding songwriting for a slight variation on that hyper-thrashing modern sound. This isn’t my thing, I mean I’ve got a couple hundred modern thrash records I rarely choose over the first Nuclear Assault or whatever. Point being that the interim between that second record and this third one birthed an entirely different band as Jake and Jude would briefly join legends Hellbastard and also brutal death crew Putrefy in the meantime while simultaneously adding new drummer Iran circa 2016. They’ve come out the other end of that pipe smoking up what I’d have to consider progressive thrash metal at the very least and certainly death/thrash by my own standards. Though some of their most basal influences still inform the shape and speed by which Acid Age operate ‘Semper Pessimus’ is an entirely different, far more serious event by direct comparison.

How big of a change are we talking, then? Well, there are still classic thrash metal tells all over this album where we get the over-arching progressive mania of Anacrusis but the deeper-underground movements of Blind Illusion and even some Sheepdog-era Razor style thrills if paying close enough attention. We are undoubtedly immersed in a darker shade of late 80’s progressive and technical thrash metal to start, especially considering the Mekong Delta-worthy “The Shameless Lyre” featuring lyre, percussion, violin, slap bass, spoken word/lyrics from Disconnect‘s Adam Miles, and an extensive drum solo to top off its full four minute introductory moment. This is absolutely grand and suggests we are in for a production at the very least although from here we are served a progressive form of thrash metal with vocals that lean things into a death/thrash realm, occasionally dipping into death metal for the more sordid narrative moments; Think of Section Brain‘s ‘Hospital of Death’ in terms of movement but with a thrash-rooted aggression n’ roll a la Infected‘s ‘Dark Century’ to start. There is no doubt ‘The Sane Asylum‘ is the most important stylistic reference for this record’s guitar and rhythmic work but we could additionally point to Gargoyle‘s (Japan) ‘Misogi‘ when finding a balance of aggressive late 80’s death/thrash and the hidden realms of avant-garde and prog-thrash the world over that we find developing in Acid Age‘s guitar work therein. I couldn’t fully demystify their work with comparisons here as there is no plain worship on offer but there is a fine balance of aggression and ornately designed guitar runs that take the experience far beyond the norm and showcase the shred-capable but music minded world of Jude M. developing its own language alongside his equally talented rhythm section. The eighties boppin prog-metal whip of “Oh What An Artist Dies With Me” is, relatively speaking, the up front proof of those high standards melding with a bout of brutal songwriting, capturing the severity of Nero’s suicide before the horrors of his life flash before his eyes.

‘Semper Pessimus’ narrates the historic thirteen year reign of Nero over Rome from late 37 CE through mid-68 CE as the final Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, long seen as the peak of public cruelty that’d allow Christian leadership to begin erasing the old ways and introducing their own brand of ruthless manifest destiny and violent religious persecution. At this point you’ll have gotten the point that I like this album, and if you’re uninterested in how the lyrics connect with the theme of this tragedian concept album simply flip down to the score and listen for yourself. The lyrics, the context, and the story here are endlessly interesting seeing as the detailed historical documents left behind give one side of Nero’s story which is then conflated and bastardized by the extant works of fellowes who absolutely hated Nero and were unabashed in their bias, perhaps for good reason(s) such as the forced suicide of Seneca. The missing context which we must consider is that when we look at figures like Caligula and Nero from the same dynasty we must include the religious, cultural, and political norms of Rome within this era which are brutal by the standards of later Christian writers like Sienkiewicz, who felt this was the tantamount evidence for the barbarism of pre-Christian Roman culture primarily for the stories of Christian and Jewish persecutions, of which Nero was infamously the villain; Some sects of Christianity (and failed political uprisings) would later foretell the resurrection of Nero as the Antichrist, a sort of boogeyman later seen as an absurd superstition, or present leaders as the reincarnation of him during failed campaigns. In witness of tyranny, debauchery and worldwide political turmoil today it is nonetheless relevant to examine the history nearby the fall of corrupt dynasty and witness the supposed “lowest low” of the Roman empire within this engaging, energetic personification of its most infamous inbred, stilted man-child and his many cruel failures.

The lyrics of ‘Semper Pessimus’ follow the life of Nero in chronological order, beginning with “The Banquet of the Dead” in reference to Nero’s named succession of Claudius, ensured by his mother Agrippina and betrothal to his, uh, step-sister Octavia. There is such detail to these histories and it is such well-studied and dramatized material that Acid Age do us a favor with broad-speaking language and direct influences, honing in on the sadistic temperament of Nero from the start. “Slave Girl” references the child-bearing affair the young Nero would have with Poppaea Sabina during his marriage to his step-sister Octavia, whom he’d soon accuse of infidelity and banish to Pandateria (a royal prison island, essentially) and later have her beheaded whilst Romans marched in protest of her exile, she’d been beloved at the time. Of course this likewise inspires the lyrics for “Octavia”, these events are historically posited as Nero’s reason for having his mother assassinated via attempted shipwreck and a stabbing in her chambers (via Nero’s tutor and freedman naval officer Anicetus), a scene depicted on “My Wretched Womb” essentially from Agrippina’s point of view. The lyrics are written as a sort of theatrical play in some sense, quickly shifting to Nero’s voice for a sort of call-and-response on paper, I can imagine both characters reacting in spirit to the (even then) shocking matricide. “The Burning of Rome” is likewise self-explanatory, the lyrics emphasizing Nero’s blaming of the July 18-19th firestorm within Rome circa 64 CE on the Christians, who were quickly becoming a menace upon the Roman way of life. Propagandists from the Flavian dynasty post-Nero would infamously suggest the tyrant Nero sang the “Sack of Ilium”, playing a harp in full stage costume while the city burned. This event is a prime example of complex politics, inbred leadership, and terrifying power all imploding at once and soon becoming legend writ by whatever ruler would have the ashes to rule over.

Treachery from the start, this era of Roman history is particularly rife with vies for power, political failures and defeats that’d most often warrant suicides. If we refocus upon Nero’s personal life we see suicide as the result of nearly every compatriot, lover, and companion of Nero as his reign continued to spiral towards his defeat and own infamous suicide in July of 68 CE. “Manic Euthanasia” deals directly with the Nero’s particularly psychotic grief following the death of whom is likely his ‘true love’ among many playthings, Poppaea Sabina who’d passed assumedly during her second miscarriage. His reaction to the grief of this event is unique to say the least. After seeing Sabina’s face in the young (freed) slave boy Sporus’ features, Nero would marry and castrate the “boy toy” (puer delicatus) and essentially make him a commodity of the emperor. Oddly enough Sporus would find his next two partners, the head of the Praetorian guard as well as Otho (former husband of Sabina) each take him in and treat him as if he was Poppaea Sabina. Each of these people committed suicide (Sporus included) by the end of 69 CE, with the exception of Nymphidius being backstabbed by his guard. Acid Age have structured the lyrics of these major events into a succinct and easily read set of referential acts depicting what are the most infamous and twisted moments within Nero’s life, painting him as both a wretched and scheming tyrant, as is tradition, but also giving just enough context to glean exactly what made him interact with Rome in such a way. A man born into treachery certainly has his own free will and temperament to fend off a horrendous, dramatic and bloody life surrounded by opportunistic mutants. As it turns out the temperament of Nero was likely opportunistic and made immature via early trauma in life alongside the “godhood” that came with the title of Emperor, a man bold enough to have his first wife beheaded, his mother stabbed to death, and to reign infamous as the first Roman Emperor to commit suicide was surely the bearer of his own self-imposed curse beyond bad genetics. At 30 years old the neckbearded twat was simply doing his worst with the worst of situations, and although some of inhumanity historically depicted was simply part of Roman life at the time, made to seem uncommon and severe by the propaganda heavy Flavian dynasty and “barbaric” by the Christian supremacist historical traditions that’d twist each tale over the years.

The theme is well addressed, the riffs are suitably dramatic and narrative in their twisted forms which include touches of jazz-fusion, speed metal, death metal, and Acid Age‘s own speed obssessed shred-minded approach to rhythm guitar change-ups, all making for an appropriately dramatic and violent backing to Nero’s biography of doom. The reprise of “Oh What an Artist Dies With Me” to end the album caps things of beautifully, akin to one of my favorite records, ‘Death & Insanity‘, in recalling that original motif to reinforce the greater narrative purpose of the record as it ends. ‘Semper Pessimus’ is a fine evolution within Acid Age‘s greater development and a brilliantly presented death-tinted thrash metal record when thrown on without an certain expectations. Extra points for the deluxe hardcover digibook treatment of the first issue, they’ve done it right in terms of physical media and artwork. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Semper Pessimus
RELEASE DATE:March 20th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Avant-Garde Thrash Metal,
Progressive Death/Thrash Metal

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