One of the elements missing from a lot of the writing on black metal is an acknowledgement of the nostalgia that underpins much of the genre. Whether it’s a yearning for a lost golden age of one’s culture, a disgust with modern conventions, or an invocation of a more primal, naturalistic state, black metal sets its gaze towards the past. Perhaps no culture has a greater understanding of the psychological complexities of nostalgia than the Germans. Their language contains words untranslatable into English, like weltschmerz (an emotional exhaustion brought on by knowing that the world can never live up to the promise of the imagination) and sehnsucht (impossible yearning for something achingly familiar that may not actually exist). With this in mind, it makes sense that German black metal amplifies the genre’s already-present nostalgic quality, creating a uniquely identifiable sound that’s both mournful and epic.
Hailing from Southern Germany’s Black Forest, two-man outfit Imperium Dekadenz creates the extreme metal soundtrack to sehnsucht. Their latest album, Dis Manibvs, is a sweeping, richly-produced offering befitting of the band’s fascination with Imperial Rome. This is an album that seduces rather than alienates, presenting epic compositions alongside evocative folk and ecclesiastical-inflected interstitial tracks. Even the album’s most aggressive songs allow a melodic beauty to surface through the howled vocals and fast-picked guitar work. Aggression is far from the only mood on display here, though. Across its ten tracks, Dis Manibvs explores the facets of heroic tragedy, a muscular kind of melancholy that evokes battlefield deaths and crowns lying uneasily on the heads of powerful rulers.
Musically, the album brings to mind a number of greats from the halls of extreme metal, from Hammerheart-era Bathory to the borderline-post-black aggro-sorrow of fellow Germans Der Weg einer Freiheit. While the influence of the Nordic black metal luminaries is not absent, Dis Manibvs is by no means a carbon copy of the Second Wave sound. The album’s production balances fullness with well-placed distortion, leaving some welcome grit that prevents things from tipping over into technicality or preciousness. The sturm und drang of Imperium Dekadenz’s sound is deeply Romantic with an emotional density that is in keeping with their country’s artistic heritage. It’s not difficult to place this manifestation of metal as a latter day inheritor of the cultural currents that informed Goethe, Bach, and Caspar David Friedrich. The sounds of pipe organs and acoustic guitar coexist alongside galloping rhythms, with passages evoking ancient martial music providing a further connection to the band’s historical themes.
Imperium Dekadenz draws its inspiration as much from the pages of history as from glamorized, bombastic fictional portrayals of the Roman Empire, a fact they make clear by name-dropping Tinto Brass’ gilded sleaze epic Caligula in their promotional materials. Though their grounding is in the ancient world, the band weaves personal experience into the lyrical mix as well. This multi-tonal blending of fact and fiction/ancient and modern creates a listening experience that — while absolutely over-the-top — never strays into parody or predictability. The title track of the record has the solemn atmosphere of a visit to a pagan oracle, while “Pure Nocturnal Rome” seems to paint the experience of the empire on the verge of collapse due to its decadent ways. Closing track “Seikilos” is a chanted memento mori based on the Seikilos Epitaph, the oldest known musical composition in the world.
After repeated listens to this album, I’m honestly challenged to find flaws. No song outstays its welcome, the instrumental and atmospheric tracks provide texture to the album when played through back-to-front, and the key tracks hold their own when played independently. Though the record certainly caught my ear upon initial listen, I find myself enjoying it more upon each revisit. This is lushly melodic black metal that exhibits a mastery of that discipline.
There is a lot happening on Dis Manibvs, both thematically and musically, but this ambitious album coheres into a fantastically immersive listening experience. It’s like a stroll through the scenes of a particularly lush historical melodrama, filled with lavish details that overwhelm the senses. Much like this imaginary, beautifully produced film, Imperium Dekadenz has created a collection of songs that warrants revisiting, with each listen revealing something new to relish.