This one’s for the history buffs out there: what do you get when you cross jazz, black metal, folk and ancient Roman history all in one Frankenstein of a project? Dawn of a Dark Age, that’s what. On Le Forche Caudine, the nominally one-man project expands itself once again, and digs extremely deep into territories of history that even avid historians might consider too niche to talk about. But such is the way of things: we all have our hyper fixations, and while mine might not be ancient Roman history, I can certainly appreciate the passion of those who dig that sort of thing.
Dawn of a Dark Age is the main gig and brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Vittorio Sabelli, who you might remember as being the clarinetist who took this album from good to great with his striking lead lines and subtle attention to songcraft. Turns out, he also has a great set of ears for black metal, as well as jazz, classical and neofolk, and in Dawn of a Dark Age, he has brought all these disparate influences together into one cohesive unit, with Le Forche Caudine being the seventh full-length and the beginning of the band’s second concept cycle. This time, the band’s music centers around the Samnites, allies-turned-enemies of the Romans who fought alternatingly with and against them in several high-profile wars. Le Forche Caudine in particular centers around the battle of the Caudine Forks, which is an interesting story in the sense that it barely counts as a battle (there was no actual fighting and not a single casualty). To put it extremely simple, because I am not a history buff, the Samnites tricked the Roman army into being completely boxed in by the terrain and then realized they had no idea what to do with the advantage they just gained: they alternately received advice to wipe the Romans out to the last man and to let them all go free unharmed to build better relations in the future. In the end, the Samnites let the Romans go free in exchange for a tentative peace, which didn’t last for very long, as Rome didn’t particularly take kindly to being humiliated. The album itself is broken up into two acts, each between fifteen and twenty minutes long, with Sabelli playing the majority of the instruments, including his signature clarinet, but he is also joined once again by frequent collaborator Emmanuele Prandoni on drums and harsh vocals, as well as a whole host of choir voices and folk and jazz instrumentalists.
On Le Forche Caudine, the jazz influences are more scattered and tempered than they have been in the past. There is a much heavier emphasis on the folk and black metal elements, with little bits of jazz mostly thrown in for splashes of color. Le Forche Caudine feels much more like a symphony than a jazz record: the acts are broken into movements that flow like a true symphonic experience would, and the strings and clarinets help reinforce that. Narrations and speeches help break up the music, which is a more subdued form of black metal than I was expecting. Not too many blast beats and tremolo riffs (although they are the best parts of the album when they show up, so at least they’re not overused); instead, the riffs are simple and effective and serve as more of a backdrop to the other instruments that add color and serve to represent different characters and voices. It almost reads more as power metal or folk metal than black metal. Obviously, the clarinet is the instrument to watch, and therein lies some of the most blazing and blistering lead work on the album. Sabelli absolutely shreds on this thing, and while it might seem goofy or cheesy in some spots, it works and it is astonishing to behold.
I almost wish that Le Forche Caudine was a little bit heavier; the guitars are dialed down to make room for everything else, but there’s a sense of dynamics that I think could be explored a little more. Still, the music is an extremely effective method of storytelling: I didn’t think it was possible to make a battle that had no fighting and no casualties sound so epic, but Dawn of a Dark Age pull it off with style. It sounds like this is only the beginning of the saga of the Samnites, so let’s see where it goes next.