It is undeniable that Italy has a rich rock and metal history. In these spectacular movements like flashy power metal or grandiose progressive rock, there were always artists with the desire to create darker music. Italian progressive rock had Jacula, a curious occult project based mostly on liturgical chants, or Museo Rosenbach that released one of the heaviest albums of all the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, the legendary metal band Death SS gave birth to a unique and darker take on metal that would lead to the Italian doom scene with the Death SS guitarist Paul Chain founding a band of the same name. The bands like Black Hole, Requiem and the various related projects would forge a intoxicating and bizarre sound, often described as “purple” or “violet”, in reference to the predominant color in their imagery. The stories surrounding these bands and their theatrics were always as strange as the music itself.
Zess, named after the apocalyptic song by the French zeuhl band Magma, was no exception in this scene. The band was formed in 1987 and fell apart a year later. The young members spend this year listening to obscure and dark music, smoking cannabis, and writing material of which most would eventually make it on this album: Et In Arcadia Ego. The music present on the album can be attributed mostly to the vocalist Renato Carpaneto, using the pseudonym Mercy La Morgue, and the guitarist Michele Marchese, also under a pseudonym: Lord Ruthven.
On the one hand, Mercy bought his very unusual approach to vocals for a doom metal band, since he was from the darker new wave and gothic scene of the time. The dramatic and energetic vocal delivery alone would set any metal band apart from their contemporaries, be it on “In Mithra’s Den” where the beautiful melodies almost sound desperate or on “A Forest Mass” where they seem possessed. Especially when we compare this to other classics of Italian doom, the vocal performance radiates genuine craziness without being completely miserable.
On the other hand, the self-stylized Lord Ruthven brought memorable riffs in spades. Of course a lot of it is directly influenced by Black Sabbath, but we do find elements of Saint Vitus as well as early Death SS and the following Paul Chain. The one point that sets Zess apart is the faster and aggressive aspect of the music. Take for example the guitar riffs on the last third of “Stramonium Experience” that remind of Mercyful Fate or the furiously punky middle part of “Revenants of War”. This creates a curious mix that is spiced up with synths and elements reminiscent of the theatricality of 1970s horror movies, influence surely exacerbated by the genius of it’s soundtrack makers of which the Italian Goblin is the most important for metal.
It is certainly a musically and thematically chaotic album, the lyrical themes range from anti-war songs to wild recollections of esoteric and erotic dreams, but somehow still feels coherent and that is mostly due to the sheer genuine spontaneous approach of it’s members that really decided to embrace the intoxicating dark atmosphere they felt listening to manic bands like High Tide. It is an album recorded in the heat of the candles, surrounded by cold walls of catholic chapels with the smoke of marijuana slowly filling the room. And in that room, a bunch of young ferocious musicians just decided to emulate their idols by allowing their imagination to go wild. They rebelled against what at the time was modern and flashy and completely disregarded any brakes that common sense or conformity in one genre or another would dictate. This is what makes this record exciting, this and the great songs.
To add to the bizarre aspect of the record, right after the recording, if we are to believe Mercy La Morgue, Lord Ruthven disappeared with the master tapes of the recorded songs and claimed to have destroyed them after a religious epiphany. Thankfully, years later, he came back to Mercy La Morgue, meanwhile being an important figure in Italian progressive rock with projects like Malombra and Il Segno Del Comando, to clean these tapes digitally, re-record some inaudible parts and release them in an album format so that since 2004, we can enjoy Et In Arcadia Ego.
Concluding, Zess deserves a spot as an additional pillar of the Italian doom metal scene alongside the other classic bands for the quality of the music, but also considering how it sprawled Malombra and later on Tony Tears, in which the guitarist Antoni Polidori carries the torch for the sound in the 2010s.
Favorite track: Bodysnatchers