As a kid, I was pretty pleased to have my birthday on St George’s Day. The slayer of dragons is a pretty cool guy to share a day with when you are eight years old. Of course, I have since developed mixed feelings about the whole dragon slaying analogy of Christian versus Pagan and the cultural annihilation that has tended to come hand in hand with monotheism. ‘What the devil is he going on about,’ I hear you say? Well, Emperor Diocletian was the metaphorical dragon in the story who, after pulling together an eroding Roman Empire at the end of the third century, then proceeded to engage in a bit of mass murder during which he popped St George’s head, among many others, on a spike. Yes, Diocletian was one of history’s bad guys – of that there is no argument. An evil dude, even by the standards of the day, who conducted one of history’s biggest cull of religious upstarts. The bringer of hell onto earth and there is, in my humble opinion, no better name for a death metal band.
Against the backdrop of that cusp-of-the-Dark Ages nightmare, the last album Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes (or ‘War of All Against All’, although neither titles appeared on the release), was my first encounter with the band. Amazing band name and amazing cover art – all of which more than lived up to my expectations. The sonic equivalent of battle terror and a single-minded, existential death metal demolition which the Aussies and the Kiwis (Diocletian are from Auckland) seem to excel at. The sound of the earth being scoured of all life in the wake of a tidal wave of evil from the very pits of hell itself combined with a voice that sounds like it was spewing forth volcanic fire. There was an edge to Bellum Omnium that’s rarely found even in these most blackened realms of war metal. So, you see, pedestal firmly erected, the band had set themselves a hill to climb with Gesundrian. It’s something they have clearly been working on for some time with the name taken straight from a track on the 2012’s split with Weregoat. The first thing that is obvious is that, this time round, they’ve turned the rumbling distortion down a notch and a part of me is just a little disappointed at that. The all-out genocidal terror has been tempered just a little – or at least that’s what it felt like at first.
But listen to Gesundrian in isolation and you would surely wonder how someone could even suggest such a thing. Because even from the battle-scarred opening bars of the first track Cleaved Asunder, what has been erected in the ashes of Bellum Omnium is a more controlled, sinew-busting march into the fray. Less rabid perhaps, but rather a more orchestrated, formulated sally of cuts and sweeps with the occasional barrage of sheer force directed directly into your quivering guts. And if you were thinking my initial reservations meant for a second that the band had in anyway hung up its bullet belts and replaced its bass-heavy blackened death metal sound for more welcoming tones, then you only need to listen to Zealots Poison. A track that showcases the band in all its blood-soaked glory with oppressive riffs and the bashing of war drums that threatens to tear the very ground asunder.
Diocletian still has some of the hook-heavy fury in common with bands of the black war brigade like Destroyer666 and their ability to fire off incendiary guitar solos almost at random or vary the pace while still keeping up the intensity. But despite the ‘blackened’ tag that’s often pinned to the band, this is much more straight down the line death metal like the brutal assault of Blasphemy or Grave Miasma. There are blighted, carrion peaks, scorched valleys and even the occasional brief sortie into the ambience of clashing steel and galloping horses. But, ultimately, Diocletian is as close as you’ll get to four men with guitars and drums recreating the din of battle in your speakers.
Yes, serious fans of the last album may find a sense of longing when listening to Gesundrian. But that should not take away from the death metal craft contained herein – for there is no light in here. Only the bleak and terrifying sound of eternal war.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)