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Plot: Hercules undertakes an epic quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece

The peplum, or sword-and-sandal, reigned supreme over the Italian cinematic landscape from 1958 to 1965, even though it was practiced well into the mid-seventies. The movie to launch the peplum phenomenom was Pietro Francisci’s unassuming and somewhat pulpy The Labors Of Hercules – released in North America as Hercules and domestically as le fatiche di Ercole – whose success had producers scrambling to launch their own pepla to capitalize on its box office success. The Labors Of Hercules laid out the groundwork and established the conventions that the peplum would adhere to for the next two decades. More importantly, it introduced the world to American strongman Steve Reeves, the image of perfection to which all subsequent Hercules would be measured.

The Latin term peplum is derived from the Greek peplon, and, according to the writings of Plautus and Virgil, designates the primitive dress of Greek women and, in particular, the tunic of Pallas Athena, while other sources define it as a Roman ceremonial mantle. It was French critic Jacques Siclier who first used the term - in an article titled L'âge du peplum in the prestigious Cahiers du Cinéma in the summer of 1963 – describing a specific brand of Italian costume drama set in the ancient world with muscle-bound historical, religious, gladiatorial, archetypical heroes in the lead role. Central in many peplum were the fantastic, and mythological adventures of Greco-Roman historical figures as Hercules, Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Atlas, and the fictional Maciste. Many of the non-Hercules protagonists were based of, or derived from, characters appearing in classic Hollywood peplum they sought to imitate. The peplum was almost exclusive to Mediterranean Europe, specifically Italy, France and Spain. The peplum genre never aimed for historical, or mythological, accuracy – instead they chose the most marketable elements from whichever Hellenic legend, myth, and poem sounded most appealing.

Director Pietro Francisci envisioned his own peplum after the commercial success of the Kirk Douglas-Anthony Quinn peplum Ulysses (1954). The production needed a hulking presence as lead man, as per the template set by Bartolomeo Pagano in Cabiria (1914). Years of searching for the right man came to an end when Francisci’s daughter suggested Steve Reeves, an American body builder and Mr. Universe 1950, after having seen him in Athena (1954). Reeves’ portrayal of the original Hercules allowed bodybuilders around the world to enter the industry. Following in his footsteps were the likes of Gordon Mitchell, Adriano Bellini (as Kirk Morris), Mickey Hargitay, Lou Degni (as Mark Forest), Sergio Ciani (as Alan Steel), Dan Vadis, Brad Harris, Reg Park, Peter Lupus (as Rock Stevens), Mike Lane, and Lou Ferrigno. The Labors Of Hercules became one of the biggest box office hits, both foreign and domestic, that it prompted a peplum cotton industry in its native Italy, and in the neighboring countries of Spain and France. In its native Italy alone it grossed 887 million lire, or four times its budget – in addition to another 18 million in box office revenue worldwide thanks to the promotional efforts of its American distributor Joseph E. Levine. A year later a largely similar sequel followed with Hercules and the Queen Of Lidia, released in North America as Hercules Unchained. Again, thanks to Levine's savvy, it became a box office smash.

Steve Reeves as Hercules and Sylva Koscina as Iole

The Labors Of Hercules does indeed have its titular hero (Steve Reeves) completing two of the Twelve Labors in defeating the Nemean Lion, and the Cretan Bull. However the majority of its plot is derived from the Argonautica, the 3rd century BC Greek epic poem by Apollonius Rhodius, chronicling the myth of the voyage of Jason (Fabrizio Mionzi) retrieving the Golden Fleece from Colchis. In fifties western fashion The Labors Of Hercules opens with the hulking hunk rescueing the dashing princess Iole (Sylva Koscina) of Iolcus from certain death as her chariot storms towards a cliff. Meanwhile Pelias (Ivo Garrani), the king of Iolcus, has to deal with the treacherous Eurysteus (Arturo Dominici) in his court. Prior his quest Hercules seeks counsel of the prophetess The Sybil (Lidia Alfonsi, as Lydia Alfonsi) whereas Iole does the same in Thessaly with her multiple handmaidens, one of which is played by Luciana Paluzzi (as Luciana Paoluzzi). In an early flashback young Iole is played by Paola Quattrini. A good portion is spent on chronicling the trials and tribulations Hercules, Jason, and the Argonauts face crossing the Aegean Sea. They land at Lemnos, situated off the Western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), the island of the Amazons, presided over by Antea (Gianna Maria Canale) where the gentlemen enjoy the warrior women’s hospitality. Towards the end some Samson is thrown in. It’s all fairly standard peplum business until in the third act the pulp comes to the fore as Jason and Hercules are forced to battle the dragon Ladon, a creature bearing a remarkable resemblance to Godzilla (1954), a movie that Levine had distributed three years earlier.

Lidia Alfonsi as the oracle The Sybil

While leading man Steve Reeves was fairly new to acting Francisci assembled an ensemble of recognizable faces for the remainder of the cast. Reeves allegedly was paid $40,000 US cash for the part, a considerable salary for the time. Later Reeves was allegedly offered the roles of James Bond by producer Cubby Broccoli and The Man With No Name, the part that cemented Clint Eastwood as an icon of Italian exploitation, by spaghetti western specialist Sergio Leone. Croatian actress Sylva Koscina was a regular in Italian dramas and comedies during the fifties. Gianna Maria Canale had prior starred in the original Italian version of Spartacus (1953) – famously remade by Stanley Kubrick in 1960 with Kirk Douglas starring and producing – as well as in Theodora, Slave Empress (1954) and Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1957). Lidia Alfonsi would cross paths with Reeves again in Morgan, the Pirate (1960) and The Trojan Horse (1961). Alfonsi would find steady work in Italian television afterwards. Luciana Paluzzi, obviously a star in the marking given her bit part here, was Bond Girl Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965), played opposite of Farley Granger in A Black Veil for Lisa (1968), as well as being present in the Kinji Fukasaku science fiction opus The Green Slime (1968) and the Arabian Nights cheapie 1001 Nights (1968). Paluzzi returned to the peplum genre as Phaedra, the betrothed of Theseus in Terence Young’s campy shlockfest The Amazons (1973).

Distinct not only for being the first of its kind The Labors Of Hercules is far slower and with fewer action scenes compared to the many imitations that it spawned in the ensueing two decades. It was one of the last productions by Federico Teti and The Labors Of Hercules possesses a sense of scale that would be largely absent from the 1970s excursions into the genre once the peplum was no longer deemed profitable. It’s also far more technically proficient than the imitations that followed in its wake. The cinematography by Mario Bava, son of Italy’s first special effects artisan Eugenio Bava, makes use of vivid colors, long shadows, and painting-like composition, and contrasting light and shadow. Mario Bava would in the 1960s and 70s establish himself as the master of Italian gothic horror and giallo murder mysteries. American distributor Joseph E. Levine bought the English dubbed version for a modest $120,000, shortened the title to simply Hercules, relied on radio, television and word-of-mouth promotion to stir interest in the movie and booked it across 600 theaters nationwide, a practice now known as saturation – and one practically unheard of during the 1950s. The Labors Of Hercules made $4.7 million in domestic ticketsales in North America alone. Its influence on the pepla of the following two decades is undeniable, and directors would continue to borrow from the kitschy shenanigans of Pietro Francisci’s sword-and-sandal epic.

Since forming in Attica, Greece in 2002 Cerebrum has proven to be one of the more resilient and interesting technical death metal bands to come from the Hellenic underground. That isn’t to say that things have been particularly easy for them. Their on-and-off collaboration with high-profile (session) drummer George Kollias has been as much of a boon as it has been a bane. Thus far they have released three albums, one and all stellar examples within their specific niche, on as many different label imprints. “Spectral Extravagance” was released through Czech Republic’s Lacerated Enemy Records in 2009 with “Cosmic Enigma” following in 2013 on Japanese imprint Amputated Vein Records. “Iridium”, their third and most recent offering, is distributed and marketed through Transcending Obscurity Records based out of Mumbai, India. In an ideal world “Iridium” (stylized as "IrIdIum") is Cerebrum’s overdue passage to the big leagues.

As the opposite of the more stereotypically American sounding Inveracity (whose bass guitarist now resides in his constellation) Cerebrum has by and far probably been the most interesting Greek death metal band this side of Sickening Horror. Jim Touras (vocals, guitars) and his men have always prided themselves on being of a progressive and forward-thinking disposition. Like the two records before it “Iridium” combines the typical rugged Greek death metal with technical workouts redolent of Atheist (“Piece Of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence”) and mid-to-late period Death (“Human” and “Individual Thought Patterns”) with the density and percussiveness of early Suffocation (“Effigy Of the Forgotten”, “Breeding the Spawn”). There has always been a slight undercurrent of thrash to many of the riffs and chord progressions that Cerebrum uses but it underscores that these men grew up on all the right records and thankfully keep their music free from any contemporary influences. Touras and Michalis Papadopoulos (guitar) remain from “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. George Skalkos (bass guitar) debuted on “Cosmic Enigma” and “Iridium” inducts Defkalion Dimos (drums) into the fold.

Whereas a band as Sickening Horror has drifted towards a direction that is as much symfo as it is industrial while retaining their death metal essence; Cerebrum hasn’t shed its skin quite as drastically as the former has. In the years since “Cosmic Enigma” Cerebrum has forsaken the more conventional and rigid structures for something that is altogether more adventurous and wilder in terms of rhythms. “Iridium” is stylistically closer to “Nespithe” from Demilich and “Spheres” from Pestilence (minus the guitar-synths and studio effects) than it is to more brutish and pugilistic examples of the form as “The Hidden Lore” from Iniquity or ambitious cerebral exercises as “The Armageddon Theories” from Theory In Practice. No, the Chuck Schuldiner styled solos stay very much intact but “Iridium” has a far greater propensity towards a near-constant, sputtering start-stop sections and bouncing, almost elastic rhythms. In that sense it bears more of a resemblance to Fear Factory’s “Soul Of A New Machine” strictly in how it operates on a rhythmic level. Cerebrum's newfound penchant for the mechanical works wonderfully well.

That doesn’t mean that Cerebrum hasn’t retained at least a fraction of what made their previous two records what they were. The soloing is very much what it always has been and ‘A Face Unknown’ even throws in an acoustic Greek guitar solo which is something that just begs further exploration. The bass licks are uniformly funky and will very much appeal to Obscura and Monstrosity fans as such. The drumming is no longer as flashy and extravagant as it once was now that Kollias has bade his farewell. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is the prerequisite instrumental but it, thankfully, is better composed than the two barely developed brainfarts on “Cosmic Enigma”. Although brief as always it’s closer to ‘The Prologue of Completion’ from “Spectral Extravagance” than anything after. ‘Absorbed in Greed’ and ‘Escape to Bliss’ are by far our favorite tracks of the album as a whole. “Iridium” is by far the most cohesive effort these men have yet penned. The instrumentals still add no extra dimension in the way the band probably intended but at least now they are (once again) just a single diversion towards the end. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is little over a minute long and could just as easily been integrated into ‘Astral Oblivion’. Unlike “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma” before it this is more of a slow burn with not much in the way of hooks. “Iridium” is a record meant to be experienced as a whole, and not as a few scattered tracks here and there.

Those hoping to see an Adam Burke, César Eidrian, George Prasinis, Piotr Szafraniec, or Dan Seagrave canvas on “Iridium” will have to settle for a rather standard-looking (and, frankly, uninteresting) Costin Chioreanu drawing. Since working with the likes of Demonical, Grave, Mayhem, Primordial, and Sigh and (in a later stage) with Arch Enemy, At the Gates, and Einherjer; Chioreanu has become the new go-to artist for bands either in the metal mainstream or ones attempting to break into it. A couple of years ago Costin Chioreanu was what Eliran Kantor has become in more recent times. The “Iridium” artwork is by no means disappointing but from Cerebrum one has come to expect something different, something innovative even. They commissioned artwork from Michał "Xaay" Loranc before the big fish took notice of him. The crunchy guitar tone from the previous two albums is sorely absent. In its stead is a thin, buzzy fuzz straight out of a mid-to-late ‘90s demo cassette. Not something you’d expect from a respected professional label with international distribution. Granted, it leaves plenty of place for the funky bass guitar licks and the frequent solos but far more damning is that it lacks the weight, heft and body it possessed on “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. “Iridium” would’ve sounded far more threatening with a properly dialed-in or a more refined, full-bodied guitar tone. That the record was mastered by Colin Marston at his The Thousand Caves facility in Queens, New York will probably account for something to some people, but it’s not something we particularly care for. It doesn’t fix the fantastically impotent guitar tone, for one.

We like to sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that our old Nile review for that certain South Asian publication (hi, Kunal!) was at least a contributing factor in helping the men in Cerebrum score a recording contract with its current label home. However we’re realistic enough to realize that such acknowledgements will probably not be forthcoming and expecting them on our part is entirely futile, to put it mildly. For one thing it’s good to see that talented bands in the underground are still given opportunities to break to a wider audience. A band like Cerebrum is a welcome breath of fresh air in the neverending morass of mediocrity that the majors keep forcing upon the masses who still consume it without question. There’s a point to be made that the metal scene is responsible for the self-perpetuating stream of easily marketable dross that clogs up playlists and mailorders. Thankfully label imprints as Transcending Obscurity Records continue to support and develop talent in what must be a nearly extinct tradition. If there’s any justice in the world either Cerebrum further develops under the wings of Transcending Obscurity or use it as steppingstone into the upper echelon of the genre. Either way, despite a productional hiccup, “Iridium” is their most accomplished record so far.