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The Messthetics Impress with Their Free-flowing Improvisation and Endless Experimentation

Photo: Antonia Tricarico / Courtesy of Dischord Records

Two ex-Fugazi members are joined by guitarist Anthony Pirog as the Messthetics, and they produce a hellish improvisational etude at their Manchester show.

Drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally are undeniably one of the most impressive rhythm sections in the rock world. Their work with Fugazi was nothing short of seminal, and created a template that many bands in the punk and hardcore scenes would follow. The two found a kindred spirit in experimental guitarist Anthony Pirog, and so this power trio became the Messthetics. In early 2018, the band released its debut, self-titled record, showcasing an excellent work of experimental, jazz-infused heavy music, and so a live performance by this powerhouse would be nothing less than impressive.

The band set out on a European/UK tour and I had the chance to catch them in Manchester at the Night People venue. The line-up originally consisted of two additional support acts, Lake of Snakes and the Unit Ama. Arriving at the venue I realised that the Unit Ama had to unfortunately pull out of the event. That was very disappointing, since the band from Newcastle-upon-Tyne has produced some intriguing works of post-punk/art rock weirdness. Even though their output is very sparse, having releasing just a couple of records in their 2005 self-titled debut and The Mason's Mallet, which was released in 2013, their music is very enticing and peculiar. So do check them out if you can.

So, first on stage was Lake of Snakes a self called lounge metal, dive bar jazz act. The band takes the stage, showcasing a standard hardcore line-up, standard drums, guitars, bass and vocals, but the intricacy here is that they also have a saxophone. The band's sound relies on a series of different components, starting with the foundation that is built around the bass and drums. This rhythm section provides a heavy, slow-paced hardcore basis, on top of which the other elements can flourish. The guitar takes on a piercing sound, unleashing either a barrage of heavy riffs or high-pitched lead work, while the saxophone filled the space with its dissonant and screeching delivery. On top of all these, vocalist Lewis McLean underwent a series of different manifestations, from the deep, harsh hardcore deliveries to spoken word utterances, leaving the stage and joining the crowd. It was an overall very solid 30-minute long performance that really set the tone for the evening.

Next to stage were headliners the Messthetics, and you know that a gig will be good when you see the drum set up a big bell right next to the ride. And then the trio started on an immersive tour of jazz induced improvisation on top of heavy rock structures. Having listened to their debut record one can expect that things will diverge from the source, into new exploratory paths and indeed that was the case.

Starting off their set with the very strong "Mythomania" and its unreal groove, the band started performing variations on a theme. This process was carried primarily by guitarist Anthony Pirog, who indulged into a series schizoid renditions, starting off from the existing leads and riffs of the track and trailing off to a completely different dimension. It was amazing to see how far he would go, not only in terms of his playing but also with regard to his textural alterations of the electric guitar. This was a quality that truly shined through the more aggressive and complex moments of the set, be it the playful and chaotic "Quantum Path" or the explosive and in-your-face "Crowds and Power".

And when it felt like Pirog had drifted to this completely new and unexplored dimension of the Messthetics' music, Canty and Lally would skillfully retrace the band's trajectory back to the source material. But it was the energy between the trio that made this end result so convincing, with all members being absolutely attuned with each other, a sense that came across through all the different modes the Messthetics visited. From the rockier, catchy riffs and explosive fills of "Serpent Tongue" to the subtler interludes of "Your Own World" and "Radiation Fog", to the moving melodies of "The Inner Ocean". With Lally always providing the foundation for the improvisations and Canty altering through maniacal renditions and subtle brush hits, to unleash a tour de force of a performance.

The trio also paid tribute to the great Sonny Sharrock with "Once Upon a Time", a track that was released with their debut album, and they also surprised the audience with a cover of the Miles Davis' classic "Black Satin". Another couple of tracks for encore, and then the night was over and the ex-Fugazi veterans and Pirog, made it one hell of show with their energy, free-flowing improvisation and endless experimentation.

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