Five years in the making, Acid Age’s fifth album, Semper Pessimus, has finally arrived.
The immediate question is this: Is it worth the wait? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes-with-more-words. Below are those words, but they also act as a sort of listening companion to the album, because it’s truly something that has to be heard to be believed, and even then, there might linger some doubts and wonder and awe about the experience; one that certainly is not for the fainthearted.The turbo power trio – Jude Milk on guitar and vocals, Jake Martin on bass, and Aran Howe on drums – have sculpted something as accomplished as the best marble statues that were destroyed in the great burning of Rome. The record is a flowing concept album that tells the story of Nero, the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It’s a razor-sharp blender into which a vast range of styles, influences, and genres have been thrown, encompassing elements of thrash, death, black, and speed metal, as well as a crossover, prog rock, funk, and jazz. It blends them all together in a seamless, unpredictable body of work that leaves you wanting more despite clocking in at close to an hour in length.
Semper opens with a few sparse high-temple-sounding drum taps and a few twangs of ‘The Shameless Lyre’ that immediately creates an effective atmosphere over which Disconnect’s Adam Miles reads a few lines decreeing the life and times of the aforementioned Nero. What follows is a mesmerising, kaleidoscopic swirl of guitar that’s reminiscent of the lush solos of the Soliloquy section of Rush’s ‘2112’. Incidentally, the band are in no rush to get things going, taking their time with intricate layering and building up to the first of many completely and utterly unexpected moments.
Just as the song seems it’s about to shift gears and take off, the strings peter out, giving room to an unusual, meandering drum solo that works because of its relative strangeness rather than in spite of it. There’s the sense that, much like Lucky’s infamous monologue in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist, existential play Waiting for Godot, there’s an undercurrent of meaning underpinning the seemingly mad and apparently senseless rolls of fills and tom trills, even if this meaning isn’t inherently revealed to the listener at first. Each time Aaron’s sticks strike the kit, it’s as if he’s trying to say something as if each strike conveys something about the overall narrative that the album is about to portray. Every time you hear it, you want to go back and listen again. At the very least, this incredibly intriguing drum sequence does say one thing for sure: leave behind any and all expectations you may have before you proceed. Sage advice.
The album really takes off with the opening seconds of ‘Oh What an Artist Dies in Me’. The trio is in such perfect synchronicity together, they’re practically sitting inside each other’s pockets, like weird three-headed, long-haired ouroboros. Something that probably wouldn’t be out of place in the fabulae told by the storytellers of the time in Ancient Rome.
Before you know it, the lush Rush-esque sequence of ‘Lyre’ becomes a distant memory as the rug’s pulled out from underneath you, the world’s flipped upside down, and you realise you’ve descended into a nightmarish realm, replete with brutally hellish vocals and whispery guitar flourishes that echo the screams of anguished souls, before the song’s indelible chorus forces its way into your head, where it’s undoubtedly going to reside for a long time.
What’s that? You think by now you have an idea of what to expect from Semper Pessimus? Really? Did you not listen to anything Aran’s drum solo was telling you?
Ok, fine. On you go to ‘The Banquet of the Dead’, then. But don’t say you weren’t warned. Yes, it’s as brutal as its name suggests. And no, there’s no dress code. Though you might want to leave your neck at home if you can. There’s a high risk of it snapping. A very high risk. In fact, there’s a moment just shy of one minute into the track that’s so sudden, so unexpected, and so preposterously brutal, it’ll give you the same terrifying jolt and intense thrill as a well-executed jump scare in a masterfully crafted horror movie.
‘The Banquet’ is absolutely riveting. From start to finish, it’s a sheer joy. Jake and Aran know exactly when to provide support and when to counterpoint Jude’s razor-sharp riffing, which creates a few pummelling, flawless passages that can only be described as a headbanger’s paradise. Especially the whiplash-inducing segment that takes place immediately after THAT scream. And just when you think you’ve feasted enough and had your fill, the band bequeath the song’s final course: a sumptuous set of guitar solos that simultaneously whet your appetite while also leaving you craving more.
By this point, one thing is obvious. The band as an entity has matured has shed its juvenile skin, a done-to-death staple of the thrash genre. However, just because they’ve matured in their songcraft and sensibility doesn’t necessarily mean their music has to be boring or mundane. The band are keenly aware of this. SemperPessimus is anything – and everything – but boring and mundane, which is evident in the first few seconds of ‘Slave Girl’. Its opening riff is fierce but also bouncy and fun. It’d be just as easy and natural to bop along to it at a gig as it would be to furiously headbang.
Speaking of furious, when the song really kicks into gear, it grabs you by the face and pulls you up close, front-and-centre, so that Jude can spew his corrosive, vitriolic guttural vibrations all over you. The second you’re released, you’re lulled into a false sense of security by some rather pleasant bass rumblings that afford you time enough to try and catch a breath and attempt to adjust to what’s just happened. As you start to wonder whether or not you might need therapy to work through the complex emotions that the album has elicited so far, the gear stick is slammed forward once again and you’re all but aurally kidnapped by the speeding trio. Later there comes a few bass fills and a stunning bass/guitar harmony that really highlights just how superb and bright the bass tone is. Fast on its heels is a high-octane power solo that oddly enough wouldn’t have been out of place among the better moments of Death Magnetic, despite how different the two albums are as a whole.
After this comes a bass solo interlude that feels like a sonic rendering of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory; it sounds as if time is melting before your very ears, and you’ve temporarily entered a different temporality, been given a peek into a different dimension. It’s moments like this that really make clear the fact that Jake Martin is one of the most accomplished, virtuosic bass players on the island of Ireland, if not further afield.
However, what sadly follows is the band’s first slip-up: a riff so strong it could carry a whole song on its back is cast aside after what can barely be described as a two-second tease. This should be considered a crime against humanity, and yet, true to form the band makes up for it almost immediately with ‘Death of Octavia’.
The song’s first twenty seconds will be giving Slayer and Kreator fans wet dreams weeks after they first hear it. As for the rest of the song; imagine turning a corner and ducking at the last second as a sledgehammer comes whipping through the air, metal-side-first, toward your head. And then you notice it: the very angry octopus wielding another seven sledgehammers that are making its way toward you faster than you thought octopi could move on land as if it’s travelling on one of those ground-flat escalators. And just as you realise the entire ground has indeed been replaced by a cavalcade of those horrifically-named travelators, all pointing in different directions and travelling at distant speeds, you notice the octopus is gaining on you, and it decides to throw another sledgehammer at your head. You need to run. Now.
This is the same kind of manic, surrealistic, feral energy, the same surge of adrenaline, and the same sense of here-and-now immediacy that ‘Death of Octavia’, and the rest of Semper Pessimus, offers. It is fucking wild. In the best possible way.
There are segments that would lend themselves just as well to traditional beer-and-sweat moshpits and Corpsegrinder-neck-building windmilling as they would to a league of interpretive dancers. Probably not the intent behind them, but incredibly difficult to pull off, nonetheless.
But, after a certain soaring guitar solo finishes, one that’s dripping with sanguinity, the interpretive dance crew are told to fuck off as the song blisteringly finishes with a dizzying cacophony of snare and cymbal abuse, off the charts tremolo, and some haunted screams threw in for good measure.
Thrash, the bed on which Semper’s more roguish and experimental limbs tend to lay on, is front and centre for most of ‘Wretched Womb’, until, musically-speaking, a court jester decides to interrupt proceedings before fleeing the encroaching guards, Jack Sparrow style. Out of a rare moment of calm, in which Jude lightly trills over a rhythmic groove that wouldn’t be out of place in Maggot Brain, the song’s chorus lunges out, its claws at the ready. This one will certainly make for a wretchedly good experience at live shows in the future.
Next up is ‘The Burning of Rome’, which has one of the most intense openings ever. Listening to it, you can almost feel the heat of a blazing conflagration as it greedily rips through a city, consuming stone and flesh alike. As with the title track of Drakonis’s Blessed by Embers, ‘The Burning of Rome’ features one of the best screams ever to have been recorded. And that isn’t hyperbole. It’s almost as if there’s something about modern life, perhaps region-specific, that lends itself to those kinds of harrowing, heart and soul-rending shrieks that stop you in your tracks.
The song, which kicks into its main riff after a moment of echoing bass, is a wonderful example of thrash metal done right, with a roster of impressive riffs kept fresh with just the right amount of guitar fills and bass twangs, all kept in near-constant movement by unrelenting drum blasts before a very effective false ending gives birth to a riff that itself is a bait-and-switch; leading not to the expected heaviness, but rather a mid-tempo jaunt over the top of which comes a very well-balanced, incredibly expressive guitar solo that manages to stretch itself out for the song’s remaining two minutes without stagnating even once.
‘Severed Outcome’ and ‘Manic Euthanasia’ are yet more examples of thrash worship. But they’re also a testament to the nearly endless variations of the genre, especially as far as bass guitar is concerned. There are fills that punctuate and accent Jude’s riffs, solos that come in at the perfect moment and leave without overstaying their welcome, and there are even moments in ‘Manic’ when the bass completely takes charge and leads the song. It’s the sort of playing that Dave Ellefson is so revered for. And it acts as a reminder to countless uninspired bassists: you are actually allowed to play notes other than open E’s, and you don’t always have to be a shadow of whatever the guitarists are doing.
The songs also contain more, and very much welcome, melodic solos that shake things up and take away any potential risk of the music feeling repetitive or stale, as is the fate of more than enough songs, especially throughout thrash history.
As ‘Euthanasia’ draws to a close, it feels that things have come to an end, and the absolute whirlwind of an experience is over. But – you guessed it – it’s not. In a sense, you’re thrown right back to the start again, as ‘Oh What an Artist Dies in Me’ gets a reprise, which is a real treat, especially considering how it doesn’t feel like a vacuous cut-and-paste job with little thought behind it, but rather a measured and well-judged decision. It also allows you more time to say goodbye to Semper Pessimus, because, if you’ve made it this far, you’re in it for the long run and don’t want it to end just yet. At least until your second listen, that is.
Semper Pessimus is an incredibly accomplished and masterfully crafted piece of music that almost immediately grabs you by the nether-regions and takes you on a virulent odyssey through more or less uncharted territory. It’s something that genuinely has to be heard to be believed. It’s a complex, intense melting pot of influences that never once gets buried under the enormous weight of its own ambition, and is executed so well there are very few albums like it in existence. The fact that it was recorded on analogue rather than the typical digital thoroughfare of today’s musical offerings helps bring it to life that little bit more, with its (admittedly few) blemishes and imperfections, kept intact to maintain its character and sense of realness.
It deserves to sit in a league of its own, and indeed, the band have coined a new term, created a new genre to mark the occasion. You can totally imagine Tom Araya screaming ‘WAAAAAR JAAAZZZZZ!!’ before ripping into ‘War Ensemble’, but it would be hard to imagine Slayer writing something as unpredictable and crazy as Semper Pessimus. It was very much worth the five-year wait.
Despite the current situation, the lack of gigs, and the tragic non-existence of a launch show in support of and to showcase the album, this is perhaps the perfect time for the album to come out. Or rather, this is the perfect sort of album to arrive at a time like this.
Its sheer scope, complexity, brutality, and genuine ingenuity means it’s the sort of album that will bear more fruit with each subsequent listen, and will always provide a return on any time invested in it. Those are the sort of records that tend to stay with people, that sit amongst their favourites of all time. Time will tell whether this will be the case for Semper Pessimus. It’s not unlikely.
The album is available on the band’s Bandcamp page, where you can buy it in a limited edition hardback matte finish digibook with full-colour artwork, photos, and lyrics.