Thursday 12 January 2023

Messa - Close (2022)

Country: Italy
Style: Doom Metal/Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 11 Mar 2022
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Hank Shteamer summed up 2022 with a Best Metal Albums list at Spin and he cheated a little with two albums tying for the number one spot. However, Faetooth didn't make it onto anybody else's list, as far as I can tell, while Messa did, such as those at Brooklyn Vegan and Treble Zine. I'm new to Messa, but they're an Italian band usually defined as doom metal but with aspects of ambient and drone. There's definitely doom here, but it varies in ways that are unusual, and it often spins off into other directions entirely, sometimes at the drop of a hat.

Case in point: the opener, Suspended. It opens with a slow but rich wavering organ, like something Susannah and the Magical Orchestra might use to accompany a minimalist vocal cover. It powers up twice, with Sara demonstrating a serious versatility in her vocals over a backdrop that shifts in its intensity to match her. She can soar and she can croon. She can force her voice on us unwilling and she can soothe us with a teasing invite. It's good stuff, a lot looser than I expect from doom, but it impresses. And then suddenly, five and a half minutes in, this gets so loose that it's jazz.

No wonder Spin suggest that the album is reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, Danzig and Steeleye Span, a trio you wouldn't generally expect to see mentioned in the same sentence. There's an element not covered there too, which is world music. Many of these songs, starting with Orphalese, kick off in a world music vein, with ethnic instrumentation—Spin call out a use of oud and duduk, but that only scratches the surface—that's used in ethnic ways, not in translation to western rock music. It often seems eastern, but it's never quite that predictable.

And there lies much of the joy of this album. Like Mr. Bungle but in a less schizophrenic way, this is never predictable. Whatever a particular song is doing, we can't rest assured that it's going to be doing that three minutes later and we have no expectation that the next song will follow suit. The sheer versatility in play makes me hesitate to even slap doom metal onto this as a label. Sure, it's common to many of these songs and it may mark the roots of the band, but it's misleading, just as any genre would be. Progressive rock works just as well. The common factor here is music, pure and simple.

It's jawdropping to realise that a piece of music like Orphalese, heavy on world music components and without much in the way of drumming, especially during the first half, is sandwiched between a pair of heavier songs in Dark Horse and Rubedo. Dark Horse is a masterful exploration of tempo changes, shifting up and down without ever leaving doom, which is not remotely as simple as that might sound. Simply speed up doom and it's not doom any more. The mood has to be maintained and transformed through that tempo shift and thats why you don't hear much fast doom.

Rubedo may be the highlight of the album, though it's not clear cut with Dark Horse here and the pair of long songs halfway through, Pilgrim and 0=2. It definitely plays in doom too, but as a chance to contrast what almost feels like a deconstruction of a singer/songwriter folk piece, with heavier sounds that are clearly doom. Then there's a serious ramp up in speed halfway that takes us firmly away from doom and back in again. A thirsty guitar sears over a flurry of furious beats and it's all very unexpected and very impressive indeed.

I found myself separating the sound into vocals and instrumentation. There's such a strong focus on dynamic play that the electric guitars blend with bass and drums to form one half of the sound. Alberto does provide some great solos but, even there he's over on one side of a visualised stage with the other rock instruments, Marco on bass and Rocco on drums. Sara is on the other, almost in a standoff, teasing collaboration one moment and then dominating the next with an incredible breath control. With her are the acoustic and ethnic instruments, because they do much the same thing in their individual ways.

This album is like a tug of war between the two sides, an electric rock band rooted in doom but not averse to be versatile and an acoustic world music outfit who like tradition but aren't that averse to fusion. These songs pull one way and the other, a consensus sometimes being found but usually a more complex interplay. Quite where the punk blitzkrieg Leffotrack fits, I have no idea; it's almost a third competitor entering a two side dynamic and it's out of place. However, the jazz competitor joins the battle with abandon, especially late on 0=2 when a manic saxophone joins the wild guitar and steadily galloping beat.

In short, there's a lot to take in here and it's impossible to lump into one bucket but, if you have a taste for multiple genres and you don't restrict yourself simply to the rock spectrum, then this is a potential treat for you. If there's an obvious flaw, it's the album is long, running five minutes past the hour mark, and some of these songs are most notable for being between others, not remotely filler but not able to justify their presence quite so easily as others. That's nothing major though. I haven't yet skipped a song, however many times I listen through. This is majestic stuff.

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