There’s no cinematic art form as distinctly American as the Western. When we think of America, we think of the cowboy. We think of the strong jawed, sun tanned, loner riding into a dust covered Nevada town stuck in a panic that only John Wayne can amend. Personally, I was never much a Wayne fan outside of True Grit and The Searchers. He’s too clean cut, too wholesome, and too perfect. He’s the American ideal. When I’m in the mood for a Western, I reach for Once Upon a Time In the West and The Man With No Name Trilogy. These are the entries that dig deeper and put the myth of the American white hat cowboy on notice. As it turns out, the genre’s absolute best installments were made by an Italian director, filmed in Spain, and featured an almost exclusively European cast with lines dubbed over in English. Sergio Leone mastered the form by taking the feel, structure, and language of Italian cinema and contextualizing it within the Western parameters. Heroes are presented as flawed, the danger is gritty and real, and the resolutions aren’t neatly tied up with Clint Eastwood riding off to a happy ending.
The Italian doom band, Messa, pull off a similar trick with American musical institutions. Jazz and blues are filtered through thick guitar riffing and dusky, impassioned performances. Coltrane, Miles, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald all come to mind alongside metal paragons like Sabbath and Windhand. With a less ambitious or competent band, it’d be easy to get lost in a game of “spot the influence”. In the hands of Messa, these artists are merely reference points. On their 2016 debut, Belfry, Messa provided a modern nexus between their icons without losing themselves in the process. The result was an intoxicatingly unique palette they refer to as “scarlet doom”. The band may have a very different idea of what scarlet doom is, but I’d describe it as warm. Their sophomore album, Feast For Water, casts and envelops in a velvet soundscape that could have easily been sewn anytime between 1972 and 2018. It’s the blood moon hanging over the tree line and breaking through the window while a Dario Argento film quietly hums in another room. Sometimes it swoons. Sometimes it bites. It’s romantic in the way it blends the old and the new. But the comfort contrasting the drama is where it becomes vital.
To get a sense of Messa’s scope, start with “The Seer”. A nimble shuffle with the force of John Bonham steadies a crawling blues line before the composition cycles through Earth desert drones, a high-flying Hawkwind takeoff, and a dexterous Pentagram meets Django Reinhardt guitar solo. Adding to Messa’s already impressive sonic vision are Sara’s full-on powerhouse vocals. Tracks like “She Knows” and “Leah” dip into the shallows, wade in atmosphere, and place total focus on her stirringly emotive vocal chords. Throughout the tracklist, she proves to be one of the most capable singers in doom, but she truly shines in the context of these late night mood pieces. Her voice dips and rises with fluidity while demonstrating a smooth confidence that’s too rare in the genre. What makes Messa special is how all of these parts that would feel like highlights on their own come together in total service of each other. The restrained “She Knows” is effective because of how it feeds directly into “Tulsi”‘s rapturous freakout. “Snakeskin Drapes” manages to pull every facet of Messa’s personality into the perfect overture. Feast For Water is finessed synergy that strings together into one of 2018’s most intriguing releases. Drink it in.
Messa was gracious enough to provide some insight into Feast For Water.
Blocland: There’s a respectable amount of styles represented throughout Feast For Water, but what strikes me the most is how well the whole band plays it all. Can we start this interview with an explanation of the band’s musical backgrounds?
Messa: Messa started in 2014, when Sara (voice) and Marco (bass) started developing a concept and some music for this project. Soon after, Alberto (guitar) and Rocco (drums) joined, and everything fully began. Some months later our first record ‘Belfry’ was born. We have a strong interest in many genres of music and they all end up in the sonic cauldron we deliver with Messa. Alberto currently plays in a prog band called Glincolti and Rocco has a black/thrash metal project called Nox Interitus. Sara plays bass in the grind/death band ‘Restos Humanos’ and sings in the psych/folk duo ‘Sixcircles’. Marco just quit playing in a dark rock band called The Sade after many years of collaboration. We all have different influences and we all come from more-or-less different backgrounds. Some of the bands and artists that we all agree upon are Windhand, Angelo Badalamenti, John Coltrane, Bell Witch and Herbie Hancock. For sure we’re also influenced by dutch rock/metal acts such as Devil’s Blood, Urfaust, Dool…
Blocland: There’s a lot of blues flavored riffs on Feast For Water that fit directly into the doom template. But, you all cite Coltrane as a main influence and include a lot of jazz flavored instrumentation. What kind of relationship do you see between jazz and doom metal?
Messa: Feast for Water contains many parts of Rhodes piano, which is an instrument that links directly to some genres of music like jazz. We love Coltrane’s work, it’s a frequent listen for everybody in the band and it was an inspiration for composing our new album. Some piano and guitar work contain some jazz scales and chords, but we don’t think Feast for Water is a jazz record. A key element is experimentation. This album allowed us to be more creative. A way to make it sound like a ‘different’ record was to use uneven composite solutions, although chosen with care.
Blocland: There’s a noticeable difference in the growth between Belfry and Feast For Water. Everything feels larger and more grand on the new record. You’ve also leaned further into the things that made Messa special on Belfry. Was there a difference in how you all approached this record? Were there different goals in mind this time around?
Messa: Feast for Water is more experimental. One of the goals was transmitting to the listener the sensation of apnea while drowning into the depths of the human feelings. We wanted to shape and synthesize our songwriting better than how we did on our first record Belfry. In our opinion, the arrangements are less roughly sketched, less “jammed” and more polished.
Blocland: As far as the lyrics go, Feast For Water is a darker listen than Belfry. The writing feels more personal and hooks are catchier. What can these changes be attributed to?
Messa: The lyrics for Feast for Water are very personal and they can show how we see the world. Our singer writes all the lyrics and she has freedom of choice. Belfry was Sara’s first experience as a vocalist, so at the beginning she felt quite strange with that. After releasing that album she started to feel more comfortable and it can probably be heard on Feast For Water. The vocal lines are more complex and she has explored her vocal range while searching for different, more sensitive means of lyrical expression.
Blocland: There’s a real loose quality to tracks like “The Seer” and “Tulsi”. It feels like these songs would be played differently live each time. How did these instrumentals come together?
Messa: The solo parts are improvised in every song, but the core (bass, drums) and vocal lines remain the same when we play live. For sure “The Seer” and “Tulsi” are particularly suitable for jamming. In this case, the riffs are created and learned by heart. The solo sections allow Alberto to carve his own space and time into the frame of the songs.
Blocland: If I didn’t Feast For Water was a 2018 album, I’d have a hard time placing the year, or even the decade it was made. Is that timeless quality something you all actively strove for or did come about naturally?
Messa: We think it’s normal to show echoes and reminiscences because they’re in our roots (ex. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath). Our goal was creating something personal and new. Feast for Water could easily be classified as a 2000’s doom record. For example, we don’t play doom like 80’s Saint Vitus. In our opinion it’s an ‘actual’ record regarding composition and the modernity of the sounds we chose.
Blocland: I hear shades of Californian metal like Sabbath Assembly and Earth mixing with bands of the American South like Windhand as well as blues from the same region. Where does this appreciation for very American music come from?
Messa: We have always loved the blues because it resonates inside our hearts and spirits. Some of us particularly appreciate the delta blues and touring the south of the US last year let us see the places where it all started. That was really cool for us. Generally speaking, all genres considered, we usually like American music for the raw, veracious approach musicians put in it, from garage to doom, blues etc. We think American musicians have a rougher view on music instead of a super-clean and tidy one and we appreciate it a lot.
Blocland: The album’s concept centers around “the introspective, symbolic and ritual features of the liquid element”. I’m sure you aren’t looking to give away the meaning behind it all, but can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind this record?
Messa: We chose the concept of this liquid element because it represents the idea of beginning, pureness, simplicity, and fluid power. Water can give life but it can also steal it and it has always been fundamental as a gateway to initiations and rituals. When we started composing our second record we pictured it as the subsequent part of Belfry. The main subject of our first record is the bell tower and the way it gathers people together. The bell tower draws people into the lake and our second record starts with a dive in its deep, dark waters. As you swim to its depths, you reach the portals of an imaginary underwater cathedral. The musical, graphic, and recording aspects of Feast for Water are all tied together and we think they represent this content well.
Blocland: Last year saw a lot of doom bands wrestling with very human feelings. We haven’t seen a whole lot in the past. Messa continues this trend with particularly emotive playing, lyrics, and vocals. Did the process of crafting this album provide any kind of catharsis?
Messa: Of course it did. Writing this record was especially strong for us because we wanted to dig deep down inside our personas. Everything in this record is part of our feelings and spirits. As previously pointed out, the lyrics are very personal and heartfelt. Composing the album and playing it live gives a kind of catharsis every time.
Feast For Water is out now on Aural Music.