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Absenthia - Tenebrae Vincunt CD (album) cover




Rock Progressivo Italiano

4.07 | 29 ratings

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5 stars I very rarely pull the trigger on a 5-star rating. When you couple that with the fact that this is easily the longest review I've written you'll hopefully appreciate how much this album means to me. I've actually been meaning to post a review of this appetising concoction for near enough two months now, but as Lloyd Grossman used to say I wanted to deliberate, cogitate and digest the music here first so that I could do it the justice I think it deserves.

Okay, so what kind of music are we talking about here? Folk, metal and the Italian melodic tradition are all fused into a darkly operatic whole, with Igor D'Aoconte's vocals occupying the same ballpark as Demetrio Stratos. Oh yes, he is that good. The album is a broadly conceptual work with the band's observations of the modern world presented in allegorical form. It's drenched in Classical mythology and several songs incorporate overlapping references to particular characters from the ancient world. Common threads that run through the album include heroes and dictators, love and war, freedom and slavery, but the real strength lies in the way these all come together. Igor D'Aoconte himself summed up Absenthia's inspiration in an interview with the Journal of Vicenza: 'The original theme that unites our work is the classic story and the allegory of Rome with the modern world.' The bipartite purpose of this review is therefore to draw some attention to Absenthia and to explore what's behind the surface of the lyrics, although my limited Italian means I'm really only scratching that surface.

The very first track on the album, 'Commentarii - De Bello Gallico VII' (Commentaries on the Gallic War), is synonymous with the ancient-modern dichotomy as it draws a line between the assassination of Julius Caesar and more recent political events. The 'Commentaries' were Julius Caesar's first-hand accounts of his campaigns against the Gauls, and his victories in those campaigns increased the hostility of his enemies within Rome. Following his assassination at the hands of the senators, and ironically for them, the ensuing civil wars brought about the end of the Republic with the founding of the Empire. The song contrasts this situation in Ancient Rome with the civil conflict in Germany at the end of World War I, where the revolution of 1918-19 resulted in the imperial government being replaced by a republic. The communist revolutionaries failed to take control because the Social Democratic Party sided with the Supreme Command, and the army quelled the so-called Spartacist uprising (the left-wing Spartacus League was named after the leader of the largest slave rebellion of the Roman Republic, but more of him later). In spite of its backdrop of tyranny, murder and revolution, the song itself is a rather pensive folk-inflected acoustic ballad. As such it makes for a striking intro to the album with flute, string and harp effects that imbue the song with a pastoral, antique feel.

The tranquillity of the opener is counterpointed by the edginess of 'Atomica Achillea'. This song uses agitated piano licks and heavy riffs to reflect the unease associated with the nuclear arms race, which seems at odds with the song's colourful imagery. Achillea, or yarrow, is a flowering plant named after the Greek mythological hero Achilles, the great warrior who was doomed to an early death. According to Homer's 'Iliad', Achilles used the herb to stem the flow of blood from the wounds of his soldiers. The song is therefore deeply ironic as it describes the healing herb being used as a fissile material to produce a bomb. The terrible aftermath results both in peace and grief, an allusion perhaps to Achilles' outbursts of rage, love and grief.

Absenthia are clearly influenced by the classic RPI bands and this '70s inheritance reaches its apex on the multi-faceted 'Absira e la battaglia di Teutoburgo' that swings between melodic calm and theatrical mayhem. Combining folk, heavy rock and full-blown metal it's an epic love song about a slave girl, Absira, set against the backdrop of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD when a Roman army was ambushed by an alliance of German tribes: 'The catapults launch a rage of fire never seen in the dark wood... a thousand screams, Rome crying for her wasted souls.' The protagonist's pain for his lost love is reflected in the destruction of the Roman army: 'The battle is lost, as the love I had is just a memory. Where is the glory? Where is Absira? Absira, my whore of death.' This is a powerful song with dramatic music to match the dual themes of love and death; there's a real sense of conflict in the music. It moves from melancholic beginnings with intermittent flute interludes, to a heavy passage with superb organ, and eventually to thunderous metal and back again. There's a mixture of Italian and English lyrics here, and on several other songs. I'm not usually keen on this but the mix of languages just seems to work on this album. And with its impressive song structure and great riffs, this song kicks total ass.

The anti-war song 'Aria - Ricordi di un Soldato' (Aria ' Memories of a Soldier) sadly has much resonance in the modern world. The story concerns a devoted widow whose Roman legionnaire husband has died in war. The song provides a glimpse of domestic life amid war as she speaks of their last moments together, to the accompaniment of a blistering guitar ballad.

Flanged guitar and pounding floor toms on the intro of 'La danza dei miei Satiri' (The Dance of My Satyrs) create a dark atmosphere and although the song perks up in places the overall mood remains quite dark. Satyrs were the half-bestial spirits of Greek and Roman mythology, carefree lovers of pleasure who had their own special dance called 'sikinnis'. However, they were also subversive and dangerous hence the comparison with the greed of modern man in this song. It relates problems of the global market to the folly of the satyrs, while the sound of gunfire and news reports accompany the lines: 'The sky cries for you in the dance of my crazy satyrs... the sky cries for you, the dream of the rain, in the dance of my crazy satyrs.'

There's a close thematic connection between 'La danza...' and 'Catilina e la congiura degli stracci' (Catiline and the Conspiracy of the Rags). Catilina was a Roman politician of the 1st century BC who was involved in a conspiracy against the Roman Republic. He used the plight of the poor to try to overthrow the aristocratic Senate, and is variously seen as a traitor, villain, hero and reformer. This catchy, energetic rocker reinforces the idea of corruption and stupidity among modern politicians with its use of militaristic drumming and the lines: 'In my heart there is your sword. In my world there is your war and my blood. Oh conspiracy of the rags!'

The personification of Psyche as a girl visited at night by her lover Cupid, the Roman god of love, first appeared as an aside tale in Lucius Apuleius' novel 'The Golden Ass' written in the 2nd century AD. Cupid is highly symbolic of the power of love because he is armed with bow and arrows, and on one level 'Amore e Psiche' (Cupid and Psyche) is a very powerful love song. However, Cupid is also a symbol of life after death and Psyche's search for him can be seen as an allegory of the soul's journey through life, or as a mystic union with the divine after suffering and death. This concern with the inner spirit accounts for the darkness in the song, mostly provided by the churchly organ swells.

In the wake of this comes 'Argonautica', another darkly passionate song. This is based on the story of the same name that tells the myth, possibly based on a real exploit of the prehistoric Minyan people from Orchomenus in Boeotia, of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis. The song features manly vocals humming to a lilting melody that nicely captures the sense of the crew singing as the Argo sways in the water. As with the story of Psyche, the 'Argonautica' is symbolic of the soul's search for self-discovery. However the main focus of the track is Jason's wife, the witch-princess Medea, with whose help Jason takes the fleece from its guardian dragon. The song's lyrics allude to how she puts the beast to sleep with narcotic herbs but they also hint at her evil nature: 'like infinity and the lie of your eyes, guardian doesn't sleep.' Jason eventually abandons Medea for the king of Corinth's daughter, and Medea takes revenge on her treacherous husband by killing their children and his lover. She then flees to Asia and this aspect of her character is discernible in the sitar, tablas and Eastern- sounding melody at the start of the song. Medea is a passionate though savage character and this song is suitably melodramatic; it has a sort of tragic splendour.

As the leader of a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic, Spartacus was another hero who was doomed to an early death. He is representative of oppressed people fighting for their freedom, and while 'Spartacus' the song is lively and engaging to begin, the lyrics better reflect his struggles: 'I saw shining armour, now I can't see any more... You enjoy screaming aloud, I die in the silence.' Later there's a real feeling of turmoil in the music with the conflicting sides of tyranny and liberty represented by an earth shattering rhythm in opposition to a glorious riff. And singer Igor D'Aoconte's long held note at the end has to be heard to be believed!

The album finishes with another song that reveals Absenthia's indebtedness to traditional folk music. 'Lo schiavo infante e la matrona romana' (The Roman Matron and the Young Slave) is a poetic love song in the best Italian storytelling tradition, which tells of the absurd difference in age and social class of its protagonists: 'This is the story of my adolescence, I was a slave and lover of my rich matron.' It mainly consists of a stripped down arrangement of just guitar and semi-spoken vocals, with keyboards adding some colour and shade. You don't need to be an Italian-speaker to feel the passion in the song, but I think you need some understanding of the lyrics to truly appreciate this one. The gist of the story is that Livia's (the woman's) husband is killed at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD, so the young slave is taken by a magistrate and transported to Africa as a slave gladiator. He is saved from death, gains his freedom and returns from Carthage years later. He then comes across an old woman and realises it is his beloved Livia. She is embarrassed and tries to cover her wrinkled face but he holds and kisses her. Livia dies, and as the young man himself grows old he ponders his life, and then dies 'in the memories of a sad light, but ageless.' The pure love represented in this song contrasts with the sensual love of Jason and Medea, it's more about loyalty and fidelity and ageless love. At least that's what I take from the story.

An absolutely epic album! One final word to potential buyers - you'll need to contact the band via their website if you want to buy the CD, but they're a friendly bunch of guys and you'll have the disc in next to no time.

seventhsojourn | 5/5 |


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