Sometimes a band comes out of nowhere and takes a baseball bat to the established way of doing things. Whether that means adding banjos to black metal or incorporating 70s prog into doom/death, it can result in absolute triumph or a total grease fire. It’s those unexpected triumphs in particular that make music such a visceral and exciting medium and when a band pulls off something new and unusual, they deserve respect and admiration. Unknown Italian doomsters Messa want to be the next trend wrecker and to that end they’ve fused dark ambient weirdness and minimalist drone onto old school doom on their eye-opening debut, Belfry. And what an end! Calling their unorthodox style “Scarlet Doom,” they challenge listener’s expectations throughout the album’s 58 minute run time, and while their eccentric usage of drone and classic doom confused and baffled me at first, now I’m hard pressed to stop spinning it and soon I suspect I won’t be alone.
Things get off to a slow start with the 4-plus minutes of ominous ambient noise of opener “Alba.” It serves to set a dark, unsettling mood but the length could be off-putting to the less patient listener. However, once “Babalon” cracks forth with Sun o))) like waves of mammoth distortion, attention will be paid and anticipation will peak. When the other-worldly voice of front woman Sara wafts in, you’re past the point of no return and escape is no longer an option. Moody, emotional and powerful, this is music that stops you in your tracks and pricks up your ears so as to catch every note. Sara’s vocals are at once beautiful, somber and edgy and she channels a righteous share of raw gravitas, as does the song itself.
And the best is yet to come after the brief bass drone of “Faro” as the band drops the ginormous gobstopper “Hour of the Wolf” on an unsuspecting world. This baby has Song o’ the Year flashing all over it in pink neon lights as Sara croons seductively about being haunted by demons over soft acoustic strumming, conveying a very old timey Southern gothic vibe. It’s beautiful, eerie and hard hitting. At the 2:25 mark it unexpectedly erupts into rocked out doom like early Pentagram or Saint Vitus replete with crunching riffs and rowdy, powerhouse energy as Sara cuts loose with her amazing voice. This leads to the 10-minute journey of “Blood” where Sunn 0))) mega-distorted riffs meet a siren-like vocal performance as the song sways unsteadily between crushing doom and creepy church music akin to early Sabbath Assembly. Throw in a truly unhinged clarinet solo from Hell and you have one trippy, captivating ride. Genius.
The unusual odyssey continues through the Cirith Ungol inspired trve metal rumble of “New Horns,” and the ponderous doom with gorgeous vocal hooks and stunning riff-work of “Outermost” before winding out with the bright, airy folk of “Confess.” These magnificent set pieces are broken up by interludes of ambient drone that at first irritated me and disrupted the album’s flow, but in time I came to appreciate them as integral to the album’s overall mood and essential in conveying the rich tapestry of emotions Messa traffics in. To their credit these segments flow almost seamlessly and create suitably dramatic transitions when the doom riffs erupt from the droning nothingness.
Though Belfry is a long album, it doesn’t feel that way and has a strange ability to make you play it from start to finish. It’s just so oddly fascinating, it keeps you hooked in waiting for the next twist. The production is as off-kilter as the music with the DR scores running all over the map. The drone segments clock in at DR 5 with the exception of “Tomba” which hits a shocking DR 14. The more traditional doom numbers vary from DR 5 on “Hour of the Wolf,” “New Horns” and “Outermost” to DR 10 on “Blood” and 11 on “Confess.” The scores don’t make much difference though – the music has a rough, old fashioned charm and I can only imagine how awesome it would sound on vinyl.
From a performance perspective, this is a total team win. Sara’s vocals are amazing and embody the best aspects of Jex Thoth, Dorthia Cottrell (Windhand), Jennie Ann Smith (Avatarium) and Jamie Meyers (Sabbath Assembly). She has a more raw, unpolished style, but it works amazingly well. Alberto and Mark Sade craft some first-rate doom riffs and take their playing into many realms of weirdness along the way (the solo on “New Horns” is an LSD-drenched revelation). What’s most impressive is how memorable much of their playing is and how strongly it locks the listener in. I also appreciate the drumming of Mistyr. The man pounds those skins like a Manowar drummer, but maintains an unusual subtlety as well. The whole band is on point throughout Belfry leaving me with very little to complain about.
Hot on the heels of Arcana 13, Messa is another slobberknocking Italian doom band nobody’s heard of, but their name will be on people’s tongues soon enough. Belfry is weird, inventive, ingenious and most importantly, catchy as hell. This will be on more than one end of the year list and I strongly recommend you hear this thing post-haste. It’s pretty special.