Vittorio Sabelli and his changing coterie of comrades in Dawn of A Dark Age are fully capable of donning their blackened armor, brandishing their swords and scythes, and going on the attack — and it’s thrilling when they do. But many heavy metal bands can do that. Very few are capable of surrounding those electrifying charges, as this band does, with such a rich and distinctive sonic pageant of other experiences, and none that we know of make the clarinet such a vital part of the pageantry.
I was late to the theater of Dawn of A Dark Age, having been oblivious until the 2020 album La Tavola Osca, which I reviewed and premiered here last July. But that record was one of those extraordinary musical adventures that makes one a fan for life. It arrived after Sabelli’s completion of a multi-album opus called The Six Elements, and it began a new thematic cycle. Now we have the second installment in the cycle.
This new album, which will be released by Antiq Records on September 24th, is named Le Forche Caudine, and it’s another remarkable achievement. It consists of two “Acts”, two very long compositions that succeed in transporting the listener to a very different age, in a very different world than we know now. Today we present an excerpt from Act I that’s absolutely exhilarating.
The new multi-album cycle that began with La Tavola Osca is, as Sabelli has explained, “a saga dedicated to the Samnites people, valiant warriors who inhabited central-southern Italy, as well as crucial moments in the birth and development of the Italian people and the origins of Italy (Viteliù) itself”. As the title of the new album signifies, it is conceptually based on the battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 B.C.
Though called a “battle”, there was no fighting and no casualties. There (as described in The Font of All Human Knowledge) the Romans were trapped in an enclosed valley by the Samnites before they knew what was happening, and nothing remained but to negotiate an unfavorable surrender. As explained by Sabelli, “the Samnites led by the embratur Gaius Pontius Telesino forced 16,000 legionnaires to pass under the yoke of spears. Stripped and disgraced not only of pride they returned to Rome without arms and horses, and since then the Consuls promised the extermination of all the Samnite genie…”
In bringing this event to life through music, Sabelli performed clarinet, bass clarinet, guitars, bass, and keys, and provided vocal narratives. He was joined in the endeavor by a large troop of other talented performers, whose names should be listed, in part to provide details about the richness of the instrumentation:
Emanuele Prandoni: lead vocals, drums
Geoffroy Dell’Aria: bagpipe, choirs
Hyver: mandoloncello, choirs, troops voice
Marco Molino: darbuka, tambourine, vibraphone
Paolo Castellitto: violin, viola
Antonio Bonanni: trombone, euphonium, shells
Alessandro Tedesco: trombone
Graziano Brufani: double bass
Riccardo Furlan, Simone Baù: troops voice
Simply perusing that list will give you the conviction that Le Forche Caudine must be a great deal more than a heavy metal album, and it certainly is. It brings into play a classical sense of narrative composition and a folkloric sense of melody deeply rooted in Italian traditions, but the elaborateness of the music should not be misperceived as something pretentious — because there’s no sense of that in the music at all. Instead, there’s an “earthiness” to it (for want of a better word), which is part of its great appeal.
“Gorges – Trap – Ambush” is the name given to the excerpt from Act I of the album that we’re presenting today. But to set the stage for it, I’d like to provide a linguistic preview of what happens in the entirety of Act I, which is a nearly 22-minute excursion. (Of course, if you’d rather not delay, you can skip down and press play immediately.)
Act I begins with the swelling sounds of massed marching feet and clopping hooves. When the clarinet appears as the first instrument (with the backing of symphonic strings), it creates a harmony of sorrow. Strummed acoustic instruments and a nimble bass take the place of the clarinet, and change the mood of the music to something bright and hopeful, and the vigor of the music ascends with the joinder of vivid drumming and raking chords.
There’s a hint of turmoil to come when woodwind instruments reappear, but a darting clarinet and syncopated rhythms revive the music’s brightness, and a fluid violin (or viola) melody adds soulfulness. The sounds become brazen as harsh vocals scorch the ears, and their vehemence is undiminished even when the music ebbs in its intensity, as it briefly does. Choral voices lead the song into a feeling of fight. Spoken words and wailing strings create a building tension, and the tension again breaks with pummeling drums and slashing guitars, accented by the harmonious clarinet.
At those moments of surge, the song sets fire to the listener’s pulse and sinews, thriving and throbbing with a pulse of its own that’s both warlike and grand. A fiery and flickering guitar and swirling woodwinds create a conjoined feeling of fierce determination and swelling hearts, and the music becomes ravishing, drowning the senses in a storm of thunderous percussion, feverish fretwork, wild vocal extravagance, and undoubtedly other instrumental parts that I don’t feel confident in naming — but it’s the clarinet that again reveals the glorious soul of the music in the midst of the heart-pounding tumult.
After that spectacular crescendo, the music softens and the woodwind melody becomes deeply downcast, even funereal in its mood, as Sabelli’s grim voice recites Italian words. Yet as in the introductory section of the piece, the acoustic instruments make it bright again, this time coupled with a dancing piano melody — and the clarinet soars and swirls in an electrifying solo as the music jolts the senses again, followed by a bass-clarinet solo that’s less sparkling but just as enthralling. Yet it’s the mercurial maneuverings of an acoustic bass that brings Act I to a close.
As for the excerpt from Act I that we’re presenting today, it’s carved from the place in the composition described above where the song jolts in visceral fashion and soars to a ravishing crescendo. It’s undoubtedly the most thrilling passage of the song, and a good choice as a means of hooking listeners right away:
As for Act II, which is 17 minutes long, let’s keep that a secret for now, at least until an excerpt is revealed to the public.
Credit for the cover art goes to Joanna Maeyens, and Stefan Traunmüller (Soundtempel Studio) gets the credit (again) for a beautiful job of mixing and mastering.
The album is available for pre-order in CD and digital formats here:
DAWN OF A DARK AGE: