Piombino, Italy’s Dark Quarterer make epic heavy metal because they love making epic heavy metal. Co-founders Gianni Nepi and Paolo “Nipa” Ninci have been at it since the mid-70s, while their younger and equally devoted collaborators, Francesco Sozzi and Francesco Longhi, have been there with them for 22 and 17 years, respectively. Over those many years, they’ve chased no trends and coveted no spotlight, staying trained instead on the pursuit of naught but their artistic vision.
Now, with that kind of introduction, you might expect to hear next about how the band persevered and toiled and overcame insurmountable odds to finally achieve a level of external validation through recognition and accolade. But nope, Dark Quarterer’s story is very simply that they have lived their lives and made amazing epic heavy metal music when they could and then shared it with the world with no expectation except that the music would make people happy. We celebrated Dark Quarterer’s musical career last week (here) and today we have a look at their eighth studio album, Pompei.
Storytellers as they are, Dark Quarterer gives Gianni Nepi’s voice billing second only to the songs themselves and on this album he is in absolute top form, dynamic and strong and reliably evocative as he narrates each piece of Pompei’s tale. Francesco Longhi’s keyboards play a little closer to the fore, a more central role in the storytelling and giving the whole affair a more eclectic feel with both synthesized accents and classic key sounds that evoke the culture of Pompei’s time. Francesco Sozzi’s guitar is alternately heavy and delicate, blunt and intricate in its interpretation of Vesuvius’ wrath and Pompei’s ruin and her people’s ultimate acceptance. Nipa’s drum work anchors and accents in tandem with and contrast to Nepi’s bass, generating as always a rhythmic foundation as fully integrated as it is unobtrusive.
As with all Dark Quarterer albums, Pompei tells a grand, sweeping tale, or rather a collection of compelling stories that offer various perspectives on an important idea or time and place. Of course, Pompei tells the story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the burning rock and ash of which buried the titular city. In fact, the album leads with that story. “Vesuvius” opens with ambient sounds of distant rumbling and gurgling and impending doom, before announcing the slumbering giant’s awakening with an executioner’s resigned countenance. Death and destruction are imminent, just a moment in time, an inevitable arc in the cycle. “Vesuvius” foreshadows the rest of Pompei in its complex presentation, each song with its own sound and feel particular to its piece of the larger story.
“Welcome to the Day of Death” moves the story down the mountainside like a deathly spectre, punishment by the gods for blind ambition and greed, essentially a cleansing of Man, the blight. “Panic” turns the lens on the people as first lava and pumice then toxic gas fill the streets of Pompei, killing virtually everyone in relentless and patient waves.
Pompei also tells the stories of individual people on that fateful day. “Plinius the Elder” tells the story of the Roman commander, scientist, and author who struggled to save his love during the eruption, only to die trying. Over a little less than eight minutes, “Plinius” rolls heavy, bombastic progressive metal into a warm and somber chamber piano passage then into a few soft, warm bars of jazz piano and finally a rousing extended Sozzi solo, in its musical symbolism of both the strength of love and nature’s apathy toward station and stature.
The album’s highlight is a story of another kind, personal and deeply emotional. “Gladiator” finds the arena warrior preparing to sleep, to dream of an idyllic life and a peaceful, natural death, yearning for the quiet end we all take for granted. He knows, too, though that he’ll wake to another day of fighting, driven by the essential urge to survive. Vesuvius erupts and he sees the sweet release of death even as he feels the pull to fight for his life. The juxtaposition of these primal drives is executed wonderfully and the ultimate resolution is the great payoff of well-crafted epic heavy metal.
Dark Quarterer’s great strength is telling these stories through the music, as lyrics and vocals and instruments are braided in the songwriting process so that the weave is both stronger and more aesthetically interesting than the strands individually. The listener’s experience, of course, is the proof of concept. We all know the story: it’s a volcano, it erupts, people are killed and buried. Yet the music captures the imagination nonetheless through that immersive and dynamic songwriting approach coupled with passionate playing that touches the listener emotionally.
The last song on Pompei is “Forever”, a beautiful, sad, and powerfully compassionate portrayal of the frozen figures of Pompei, everlasting emblems of their horrific demise, but also an abiding reflection of undying love. The weight of that sentiment risks melodramatic excess, but it’s so well written and handled so deftly by the players, especially Sozzi’s closing solo, that it just feels like honest tribute to the strength of the human heart.
How amazing that the members of Dark Quarterer continue to foster and nourish the fire that sparked in a tiny Italian town so many years ago and how fortunate we are that they value more than anything else the privilege of sharing it with us.