If you haven't liked SATYRICON's grimward slide toward dry, minimalist, sardonic post-genre permafrost, you're gonna just keep on hating them for "The Age of Nero". Stylistically, it picks up where "Now, Diabolical" left off, all brittle, haughty vocals and skeletal bare-wire riffing. But if that's a good thing in your bleak little corner of the world, you'll find reason to take cold pleasure in "The Age of Nero" — it's a refined, ever more lethal take on what's become the standard SATYRICON sound, with better songs, more dynamic parts and a heightened sense of real drama and tension.
For one thing, drummer Frost sounds more involved in the process this time — his talents put to better use, allowing for more seething, percolating beats and bringing to life faster moments in songs like the epic "Die By My Hand" (alas, not the CORONER track). He doesn't really show off — there is no flash or flair in the gray, teeth-gritted world painted here — but his subtle choices, sometimes as simple as adding busier drumming to an otherwise midpaced and moaning DARKTHRONE-esque riff, set things on edge and create disquiet and apprehension.
And while there's plenty of the plodding, brooding slower stuff, as can be found on "The Wolfpack, "The Age of Nero" is at its best when things get a little more convoluted. "Commando" and "Die By My Hand", in particular, eschew the hit-single-in-hell formula for surprising and dynamic tempo changes and a more aggressive attack, almost hearkening back to the "Rebel Extravaganza" era. It's all pretty seamless, and it takes a few listens to penetrate the uniformly sodden vibe to realize there are some more complex, carefully placed machinations under that opaque and rasping exterior. Even a maneuver as subtle as the chants behind the chorus of "Die By My Hand", barely there at all, add more atmosphere and skin-crawling foreboding than a hundred multi-tracked shrieks or a rack full of vocal effects.
SATYRICON have become meticulous masters of unease, creating gray and sinister netherworlds out of a rudimentary palette. "The Age of Nero" scrapes a little of the accessibility off the bones of their last two albums, sets up shop in the blasted ash of the end of the world, and emits a dark, bemused agonal croak at the gathering gloom. It's a great record, even when it strays occasionally into the predictable, because SATYRICON own this sound down to their marrow, and they're never less than utterly, elementally convincing.