Live at the Flywheel, in which erstwhile Fugazi-guys brought the noise.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Fifteen years ago, Fugazi played a benefit for the Flywheel at the Holyoke War Memorial, a show that has become legendary (you can view it in its entirety here) but which I remember mostly as something that sold out before I had even heard about it. The show came about a year before Fugazi’s hiatus, and while Ian MacKaye has been back as Evens since, other members of the band have not. The news that Messthetics, comprised of Fugazi’s Joe Lally and Brendan Canty plus guitarist Anthony Pirog, had booked a show at the Flywheel was therefore exciting. The trio’s self-titled LP, released this spring on the Dischord label, is a monumental jam, proggier and shreddier than you’d maybe expect (that’s Pirog) but powered by monstrous pummeling rhythms. It’s the kind of record that you hear and immediately want to experience live, and here was a chance.
To add to the appeal, The Van Pelt, a much revered 1990s post-hardcore band out of New York City, was also on the bill, as well as a space rock/shoe-gaze-y trio from Brooklyn called Tiers. My first thought: how great that they’re playing the Flywheel. My second: I hope to hell we can get in. (Dischord very kindly put me on the list, though that has been known not to work on occasion.)
Long story short, we do get in. It’s a nice size crowd but nothing crazy.
The tiny stage is stacked with electronics, an Akai AX 50, a couple of Rolands, a sampler and a drum pad. Tiers, as it turns out, sculpts its eerie, shoe-gazing sound largely from keyboards and synths. Glen Maryanski, who is also the drummer in post-punk Love as Laughter offshoot Cult of Youth, presides over the largest rack of electronic instruments; Jennifer Mears, the singer, makes due with one Roland synth and occasional whacks at the drum pad. Chad Dziewior, who also plays in Minneapolis hardcore band Threadbare, plays a trebly atmospheric guitar, alternating between pick and e-bow.
Tiers recorded a 12-inch with Hand Drawn Dracula’s Artificial Records imprint in 2013 but seems not to have left much of an internet trail since. Their music is full of cathedral sized synth swells and hypnotic drifts of vocals, anchored by hard, four-on-the-floor beats. It’s a very dream-pop, shoe-gaze-y vibe, with echoes of the Cure (those Roland synths) and Cocteau Twins, but also a dance-y post punk vibe a la New Order.
The next band is the Van Pelt – original members Chris Leo (whose brother Ted may be familiar to you) on guitar and vocals, guitarist Bryan Maryanski, bassist Sean Greene and drummer Neil O’Brien aka Foggy Notion. The Van Pelt emerged out of a mid-1990s NYC post-hardcore scene and made two records—Stealing from our Favorite Thieves in 1996 and Sultans of Sentiment in 1997—before disbanding. In 2014, after a long hiatus, the band re-formed and released Imaginary Third, a collection of previously unreleased material and also reissued the two original albums.
The Van Pelt let loose an onslaught of hard, Minuteman-ish punk, the bass thudding antic, off-kilter lines while Leo unspools strings of hallucinatory beat poetry. “Here it is, plain and simple,” chants Leo coolly over a heated mesh of mathy rock, as “Nanzen Kills a Cat” sputters to life. Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the explosive bass-drum-ruckus of live Van Pelt with the chillier temperatures of their recorded output. “Young Alchemists” comes closest to what you hear on Sultans of Sentiment, liquid and pensive as it contemplates trading the mystic for the scientific, while “We Are the Heathens” brings on colliding waves of dissonance and hurtling stop-start rhythms. This is a band that’s clearly glad to be there, banging out the same complicated, poetic shards of chaos, 20 years on from the heyday. There’s some grey hair on display and Greene’s bass looks like it’s been through a war, but all four of them are tossed in the same waves of sonic vibration, bobbing and nodding in unison as these side-slanting riffs kick in. The set closes with “The Speeding Train,” the final track from their post-hiatus album, and it’s a blistering, pummeling, hypnotically propulsive song, the train rattling on towards wherever, bolts flying, destination uncertain, the motion itself everything.
And now, it’s time for Messthetics whose set up is basic – bass, drums, guitar – but whose sound is unclassifiable. The set starts, as the self-titled record does, with “Mythomania,” a relentless, unstoppable, muscular chug of bass and drums, layered over with Pirog’s vaulting guitar. Live it becomes apparent how fundamental Pirog is to Messthetics, even though we writers tend to spend more time on the ex-of-Fugazi hook. He plays wild, shreddy solos and works loops and effects with the pedals; he’s the color and light in Canty/Lally’s monumental architecture.
Messthetics follows album order for this show. “Mythomania” segues into faster, squallier “Serpent Tongue,” then the liquid lyricism of “Once Upon a Time,” a Sonny Sharrock cover. The impossibly note-stuffed “Quantum Path,” is just as frenetic in concert as it is on the record. All three of the musicians are very good in distinct ways – Joe Lally is compact and contained, eliciting blistering basslines with a minimum of visible effort. Brendan Canty is flushed with concentration, working furiously over his kit with an athletic abandon (at one point, he’s playing eighth notes on the kickdrum for so long that my ankle starts to hurt in sympathy). And Anthony Pirog has the air of an introverted virtuoso, pulling off complicated things and then peering out under his hat bill to see if anyone appreciates the difficulty.
It’s a great show, and though of course lots of people came because of the Fugazi connection, Messthetics has made its own case by the end. Though really 15 years is a long wait. I hope they’ll be back again before that next time.