Balancing act

So what happens when you take one of the most distinctive and stylish rhythm sections of the post-punk era and pair them up with a much younger avant-jazz/experimental guitarist, who is one album in to what will doubtless be a storied recording career? Something disastrous, perhaps—there are an awful lot of things that might go wrong, and a lot of ways that such a venture could be imbalanced. Perhaps that’s the reason that the cover of The Messthetics’ eponymous debut shows three tightrope walkers. But there are also a lot of ways in which a project like this could go unpredictably right.

Anthony Pirog, at the time of writing, has released two albums under his own name with the redoubtable U.S. avant-jazz/rock label Cuneiform Records, whose tastes are precisely aligned with my own, and whose every release becomes a part of my music collection. His debut, Palo Colorado Dream melded experimentalism with the traditionally heavy musicianship of an improvising jazz trio, and spent a great deal of time in my ears. When a borrower at my library, with whom I have an ongoing conversation about music and cinema, recommended I listen to a new band composed of Brendan Canty and Joe Lally of Fugazi, playing with ‘a jazz guitarist’, I thought it sounded exciting, but when I discovered that said guitarist was Pirog (who is, after all, pretty damn obscure) I completely fell out.

This was two years ago. I bought it immediately, and gave it a few spins: I knew immediately that it was something special, but it’s taken until now for me to get around to listening to it seriously and repeatedly over an extended period, for the sole reason that I have a lot of other records in the queue that are also ‘something special’. By the time The Messthetics made it into my heavy rotation pile, in fact, they’d come out with their sophomore release, Anthropocosmic Nest, which I’ll be grappling with presently.

Canty (drums) and Lally (bass) erect a sturdy scaffold, which is by turns contemplative and kinetic, and which always sounds straightforward, even though it is often rhythmically sophisticated. There’s a sense of clarity and depth to their playing, which folds both men into a single voice, rather than admitting to any sense of creative friction or dialogue. Their dialogue is unified, as one musical person, with Pirog, who balances on or leaps between the structural members which their playing provides, in much the same way as the central high-wire artist on the cover (who is supported on a pole spanning the shoulders of her two collaborators).

He riffs, extemporises, sculpts, colours and invents, producing a sound that is both melodic and furiously motivic. Sometimes he drapes heavy curtains of guitar noise over the bony structure of his band-mates’ playing, and at other times he delineates great volumes of space by sketching filigreed details at their edges. Frequently he visits all these positions within a short space of time, but never in such a way as to sound arbitrary, or contrivedly avant-garde. In fact the results, which are extraordinarily clever pieces of music, never sound clever at all: they sound moving, entertaining, exciting, or atmospheric. Pirog can shred like a master, but although there’s some hard-won technique on display here, he’s also content to hammer out a riff if that’s what’s called for. The whole album more or less rests on his capacity to invent a sequence of engaging guitar manoeuvres on top of Canty-Lally’s solid, song-like structures: he never seems to have any difficulty thinking of new things to say. I’ve been listening repeatedly to this album for around three months, but I’m not even close to getting bored. It sounds familiar now, and that familiarity only helps me to unpack more of the detail with which these three gifted musicians have freighted it.

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