Dark Quarterer is a heavy metal band from Italy and it’s okay if you don’t know who they are. That fact would probably surprise virtually no one, actually, including the band. If you are already familiar with them, congratulations on being an old fart like me (or at least an old soul) who either discovered heavy metal 30 years ago while living in Italy or discovered Dark Quarterer by the grace of the internet sometime in the last 20 years. Heck, (egregiously) unofficial polls and surveys of Dark Quarterer-related discussion on the internet suggest that, typically, even those who do know the band are familiar with an album, sometimes two, and usually just their debut and maybe the follow-up. But here’s the scoop: of the few who have experienced the band’s full body of work and talked or written about it, there is strong and stable consensus that Dark Quarterer stands among the most important and innovative bands in heavy metal’s history, particularly in the epic metal niche, no matter how jealously the underground has guarded them.
Regardless of your history with Dark Quarterer, if any, the very act of navigating to this website and clicking on this feature article means you have something in common with every fan of the band, hardcore and casual, and even with the members of the band themselves: you love heavy metal and want more of it always, forever searching for lost classics and hidden gems, discovering connections through band members to their other projects and even through their personal musical tastes, sometimes falling into whole new subgenres in the process, uncovering a slew of new connections and then following those, too, insatiable in the blissfully endless and endlessly rewarding pursuit of all the heavy metal, please. Most of us are a little more discerning than that, of course; the point is the underlying passion and the wonderful notion that we share it, even (maybe especially!) with bands like Dark Quarterer, whose eighth album is being released today through Cruz del Sur Music. We’re super excited about Pompei and will be reviewing it on Monday, but we also thought the band and our readers deserved a proper commemoration of Dark Quarterer’s prior seven albums and more than four decades worth of kickass epic heavy metal. This Primer’s purpose is to celebrate the career and catalog of Dark Quarterer, but also and maybe mostly to introduce this wonderful band to heavy metal enthusiasts who should by all rights love them, if only they could know them.
Raro Come Una Mosca Bianca, or A Unicorn in Tuscany
Dark Quarterer began making music 46 years ago in Piombino, a small town in the Tuscany region of Italy. Three friends started hanging out to play songs by the bands that they loved, like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Genesis, and 100 other heavy and progressive bands. Gianni Nepi played bass and sang lead vocals, Fulberto Serena played guitar, Paolo “Nipa” Ninci played drums, and they called themselves Omega Erre. For six years they studied music theory and played together, honing their craft with an emphasis on consistent and reliably high quality. All that growth and practice generated a creative spark that became too much to contain as they began writing their own songs that favored a heavier sound and an epic spirit that reflected the wonderful legends and histories of their regional culture. The spirit of the band itself changed enough that they took a new name from their first fully fledged song, “Dark Quarterer,” a reference to medieval butchers generally, and local legend specifically, of a man who stalked and killed in nighttime village streets, perhaps for noble or at least justifiable reasons, but maybe for reasons less amenable to logic.
The mystery of the Dark Quarterer is central to the band’s ethos. The members grew up in an area once inhabited by the Etruscan people, whose culture was shrouded in mystery and which bore legends that filled in the gaps of their recorded history with all the characteristic darkness and foreboding of ancient lore. Those tales of monsters and magic and triumph and tragedy set a wonderful context from which to explore the conflicting feelings of young people coming of age amid prosperity and pollution, creation and destruction, wealth and want; those philosophical contrasts so ripe for heavy metal song making.
Chi Molto Pratica, Molto Impara, or These Songs Ain’t Gonna Play Themselves
It’s pretty important, too, to remember that these kids were cutting their heavy metal teeth in a quintessentially provincial area. There were almost no other local bands, few concerts (never mind festivals), basically no scene at all. Just three young men listening to the music they love to inspire writing, learning, and playing music of their own for no one but themselves for no other reason than the purest love of it.
Two very important career-defining characteristics of Dark Quarterer were forged in those early developmental fires. First, that isolation was something of a crucible, ultimately yielding a new and unique interpretation of heavy metal. Second, the fires that fueled that forge came from within the very hearts of those young men, passions that would and continue to feed their music for decades to come.
Now, please stop a moment. If you can, do yourself the favor of opening the following video in a new window so you can see it in full screen. Allow yourself to watch and listen mindfully. Soak in the vibrancy, the genuine passion, the simple joy of young artists sharing their art. Appreciate the authenticity and understand that this is what Dark Quarterer is all about: nothing less and nothing more than the love of epic heavy metal music.
Man, there’s just so much to love in that video! It’s a rehearsal from 1984, at the tail end of the time when young men looked like old men, and there’s none but a sound guy and a couple family members there with them, but from the energy level and balls out performance in that basement room, it might as well have been a sold out arena. Heart-felt passion for the music and nothing else at all laying the groundwork for an enduring legacy.
In Bocca Al Lupo, or Godspeed You! Dark Quarterer
Three years later, Dark Quarterer would finally release their self-titled debut album, thirteen years after first firing up their instruments together. No mean feat in a place and time that lacked nearly everything a band would need, recording Dark Quarterer would prove to be as harrowing as the stories its songs would tell. Gianni Nepi has described a hanging sense of doom and foreboding during that time that he still feels today when discussing it and that seemed to manifest several times, including a studio fire that began while they recorded “The Entity,” about a man possessed by an unknown… entity… and the burning question of why he was chosen.
[Label Service, 1987]
Despite its obscurity, Dark Quarterer’s 1987 debut album has valiantly stood the test of time, earning its reputation as a standard of epic heavy metal, not only in their home country, but indeed the world over, with more than a few people referring to them as the Manilla Road of Italy. Long, complex songs draw from the intrepid waters of progressive rock’s classic era to tell dark and intriguing stories with the gravitas that only heavy metal and doom metal sounds could impart, an immense weight really, that belies the mere three players generating it.
But well before one could appreciate the quality of “The Entity” and Dark Quarterer more broadly, there’s a couple of things that undoubtedly color one’s perception, namely the production and Gianni Nepi’s singing voice. The production is easy to explain and even to excuse, as Dark Quarterer was recorded with the band’s own equipment and virtually no budget a very long time ago. But any heavy metal fan with any real connection with its history will acknowledge the mystique of a low-budget production; it’s far from a deal-breaker and can even be a boon when the music is strong and the band interesting in their own right. And as thin and buried as it sounds, Dark Quarterer is far from unlistenable. In fact, everything that makes the album great shines through anyway: fiery fretwork from Fulberto Serena’s guitar, Nepi’s buoyant and boisterous bass, and Nipa’s dynamic drumming come together the way only good pals can to create long, fantastically vivid songs telling wonderfully vibrant and engaging stories that garner the band a place not alongside but among the great epic metal bands of the time, including Manowar, Cirith Ungol, and the mighty Manilla Road.
Of course, Gianni Nepi’s voice is the other thing to notice in those early recordings and might be the most important. It’s a bit nasally and can test an eardrum’s tensile strength when he scrapes the ceiling, but there may be no other singer in all of metal who exceeds Nepi’s authentically enthusiastic love for the art. And since when did heavy metal need a stereotypically “good” voice at the helm? Dio (RIP), Halford, and Dickinson are amazing, but so are King Diamond, Tim Baker, and Mark Shelton (RIP) and none of them is what Average Joe would call “good” in the normal sense. Rather, Gianni Nepi’s voice shines via impressive range and incredible dynamics and he is wholly invested in the process of singing. Follow him along from quiet narration through tension-building verses and choruses to crescendo and climactic resolve. His voice breaks and shakes and for his intensity sometimes barely maintains tonal balance, yet every note betrays nothing but genuine dedication to his craft. Over the years, Nepi would refine his technique and friendlier recording arrangements will allow him to preserve his best performances, especially evident in the contrast between this album and its re-recording 25 years later. For now, the original Dark Quarterer remains one of those super rare examples of an album that objectively succeeds despite its weaknesses and, especially for sentimental heavy metal fans, shines more brightly because of them.
Sadly, fortune did not shine on Piombino’s heavy metal upstarts, largely due to a lack of music scene, but also because not every member of the band agreed that good management and promotion or playing their music for real people were necessary or even desirable and so, in that moment, Dark Quarterer sort of just didn’t have a chance.
But then, it wasn’t fortune they were chasing anyway.
The Etruscan Prophecy
[Cobra Records, 1988]
Dark Quarterer’s second album followed the first by just a year. The Etruscan Prophecy is the sound of a band with millennia worth of stories to tell and finally the means to share it all. The subject matter of the songs comes from local legend of the end of Man at his own hand and the music is written to convey the weight of the apocalyptic vision, but also the frustration born of knowing such a self-imposed catastrophe could be avoided if only we were aware and cared enough to act. Not only is the sound clearer and fuller, but the band has become stronger.
Listen to Nepi sing of some poor soul’s Faustian bargain in “Devil Stroke,” his voice firmer, more balanced and composed. His melodic phrasing and cadence are complex, reflecting the complexity of the story and echoed in Fulberto Serena’s nimble riffing and reverent neoclassical soloing. “Devil Stroke” is written with all the mysterious tension of Goethe’s classic tale and its climactic release is meted so expertly as to compel closed-eyes immersion, the epitome of epic heavy metal.
Fulberto Serena left Dark Quarterer in 1990 due to what Nepi would years later call a fracture that cannot easily heal. In addition to being a fine guitar player, he was the primary music composer, which left the band in a quandary that took more than a year to sort out. They eventually found an excellent match in Sandro Tersetti, whose guitar skills fit nicely within the established Dark Quarterer frame. Nepi and Nipa worked together to write songs, forging a new compositional path in an effort to retain the Dark Quarterer spirit while creating separation from Serena’s signature.
War Tears dials things back a bit in terms of time, with shorter songs and a briefer runtime, but the epic spirit remains. Tersetti’s riffing is a touch less complex and a good deal heavier than Serena’s, though it’s similarly folded into a dynamic narrative songwriting style. The overall effect is a wonderfully sweet spot somewhere between Judas Priest and Mercyful Fate that still feels unique to Dark Quarterer. War Tears is a solid addition to the band’s catalog, featuring some thoroughly fun and enjoyable high points, though it understandably lacks the confidence and cohesiveness of the first two albums, and it would be a long nine years before Dark Quarterer found themselves in the studio again.
[Andromeda Relix, 2002]
The years between War Tears and Violence were many, but Gianni Nepi has said that what that time yielded was a newly inspired band finally able to produce the “true sound of Dark Quarterer,” which was surely due at least in part to their having found the optimal fit in new guitarist, 18-year-old Francesco Sozzi, who would remain with them to the present day.
A number of changes are evident right away on this record, most obvious of which is that it is very heavy, especially compared to previous works. It’s fitting because the weight of the sound is consistent with that of its lyrical content, focused on those unfortunate aspects of life that hurt and maim and kill. Additionally, as is custom for so many of the best heavy metal bands, Violence finds beauty through the artistic exploration of its subject and expresses it via the contrast of classical sounds with those of heavy metal. Cello and flute and choir vocals (including Gianni’s daughter Laura!) paint chromatic edges in the darkness to great effect.
Violence marked a fantastic return for Dark Quarterer in its depth, thoughtfulness, intricate presentation of difficult and complicated topics, and the pure professional execution of a group of guys who truly love what they do. It would surely have been a fine swansong, but turned out to be a sign of greatness even yet to come.
[My Graveyard Productions, 2008]
Gianni Nepi made a pretty big deal of Dark Quarterer finding their true sound on Violence, but he’s also said of each new album that it was the band’s best, which is of course what artists do, and he said it about Symbols, but it’s also absolutely the case for this band on this release. 2008 saw Dark Quarterer expanding their sound ever further by fully embracing the progressive sound they’d flirted with prior. A big part of the expansion of sound and style, of course, was the addition of keyboardist Francesco Longhi, whose creative palette allowed Dark Quarterer wider, more varied musical and narrative spectra of which they took full advantage.
Musically, Symbols is the band’s bravest album, exploring new territory via themes of greatness as reflected by singular human beings who lived lives so impactful as to change the destiny of the world; pharaohs, caesars, and kings, but also ordinary people who lived small lives in darkness but whose courage and strength nonetheless catalyzed vast and lasting change. All the component pieces come together on this one, from songwriting to musicianship to production, in the album that really set the stage for Dark Quarterer’s fullest realization.
Dark Quarterer: XXV Anniversary
[My Graveyard Productions, 2012]
Four years after Symbols and still riding its technical and professional success, Dark Quarterer had begun working on material for a new album when their producer approached them about rerecording their debut for its upcoming 25th anniversary. With the band’s most stable and cohesive line-up of musicians still intact, as well as greatly improved musical flexibility and facility, and a relative wealth of studio technology at their disposal, Gianni Nepi and Paolo Ninci seized the opportunity to finally cast a fair and flattering light on the songs of their first album. They rerecorded the entirety of Dark Quarterer at Nepi’s and Ninci’s own Woodstock Academy Studio where they teach music. The result is a wonderfully executed and fully modernized version of the album that adds full, rich sound and mature musicianship as it reveals heretofore hidden detail while retaining every bit of the fire of that original recording, if necessarily less of the wild energy and unrefined charm.
The success of the rerecording, perhaps unsurprisingly, got band and fans wondering what might have been had Dark Quarterer been afforded the same luxuries in 1987. Of course, it would have been wonderful but there’s no way to know how it may have altered the course of the band and Nepi was quick to point out, in a bit of mindful pragmatism, that it would also have meant that what they know today would probably never have transpired; and wouldn’t that be a shame.
[Metal on Metal Records, 2015]
Whereas Symbols is Dark Quarterer’s bravest album, the time spent making it and then the years after, including the time spent remaking their debut, primed and catalyzed the generation of their strongest album yet in 2015’s Ithaca. As with all Dark Quarterer’s albums before it, Ithaca tells grand tales, these of Odysseus and his travails. The songs, long and dynamic, range between and within from delicate ballads to deep, dark doom, and classical bombast to epic traditional heavy metal riffing that recalls the heyday of the genre.
By this time, Gianni Nepi and Paolo Ninci had been playing together for an astonishing four decades, but the 11 years they’d shared as a fully realized band with Francesco Sozzi and Francesco Longhi may have been even more important. Indeed, what moves Ithaca from good to great is the attention to each player’s role in the writing and creation of the songs. It’s clear that, while the elders may have had the strongest hand in writing songs, they knew who they were writing for and, as such, the young blood was given free rein in the arrangements, generating songs that are of the band more than by the players.
Dark Quarterer has been playing music for 46 years and has garnered, at best, a cult following. And that’s exactly how the band would have it. Now there may have been a time that they yearned for the spotlight, but they ultimately favored the music over the business, passion over profit, essentially finding a home in the half-light of artistic integrity. If you’ve read this far, and especially if you’ve actually listened to the songs, then you very likely know and appreciate just why they would choose such a path and that makes you the listener for whom they make their music.
Gianni Nepi is 67 now and Paolo “Nipa” Ninci is 66, and you know what they talk about in interviews? Happiness and heavy metal. That’s it. Because for them those two things just go together. Always have. Interviewers love to ask them all the what-ifs about production and resources and exposure and the (dwindling) prospect of making it big and Gianni and Nipa (well, mostly Gianni) redirect back to the love of the music. Maybe a mention of one of the dozen or so shows and festivals they play in a year; usually another epic metal band they played with and whose music they love, like DoomSword or Holy Martyr; likely some talk about the love of teaching music at their Woodstock Academy; almost certainly a broader discussion of it all through a philosophical lens focused on happiness and the notion that it is the process that brings it, more than the product.
“The consequences of anything done with the heart will be rewarded with the heart.”
~ Gianni Nepi