The Messthetics, Clear Channel
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Doors 8:00 PM
When Ex Hex exploded onto the scene with their unfettered brand of rock and riffage, the power trio for our generation had finally arrived. Made up of Mary Timony (guitar, vocals), Betsy Wright (bass, vocals), and Laura Harris (drums), the group’s 2014 debut Rips was a gleaming collection of tightly wound gems that scored Best New Music honors from Pitchfork, the top spot on Magnet Magazine’s Best of 2014 list, and No. 11 in that year’s Pazz & Jop critics poll. Near-constant touring throughout 2015 and 2016 established the band as a force to be reckoned with: an audacious three-piece distilling rock music to its essence with formidable skills and a reputation for frenzied and unabashedly fun live shows.
On It’s Real, the group’s forthcoming second album, Ex Hex’s commitment to larger-than-life riffs and unforgettable hooks remains intact, but the garage-y, post-punk approach that defined Rips has grown in scale and ambition. What started as a reaction to the blown-out aesthetic of Rips would test the sonic limits of the power trio and lead the band on a quest for a more immersive and three-dimensional sound. Vocal harmonies are layered ten tracks deep, solos shimmer and modulate atop heaving power chords, and the codas linger and stretch toward new frontiers of sound. On first listen, you might think you’ve unearthed a long-lost LP carved from the space where crunch-minded art rock and glitter-covered hard rock converge, an event horizon at the intersection of towering choruses and swaggering guitars.
Produced by Jonah Takagi (who also produced Rips), It’s Real was a more collaborative effort than its predecessor. Mary and Betsy could be found writing late into the night, leaning on Takagi to tighten up arrangements. Egos were surrendered in service to the music: Nothing was sacred or precious, and there was a relentless devotion to both songcraft and exploration. Dozens of guitar amps sat mic-ed in the next room, and the group experimented at a frenzied pace parsing countless combinations of instruments, pedals, and amps. They even dusted off Mary’s old Rockman, a small headphone amp designed by Boston guitarist Tom Scholz in 1982. Mary recounts, “It’s only about the size of a Walkman and takes eight AA batteries, but it sounds massive. We read that parts of [Def Leppard’s] Hysteria were tracked through it, and when we finally plugged it in, it blew our minds!”
The opening track “Tough Enough” is punky and defiant, with stacked backing vocals posing the question “Are you tough enough (to let it go)?” that’s resoundingly answered in the affirmative by a searing, triumphant guitar solo. “Cosmic Cave” is a bittersweet rave-up with shimmering phased guitars, a gooey-candied chorus, and beamed-in “whoa-oh-ohs” that add a touch of melancholia to the frenzied speed-of-sound pace. The ferocious and anthemic “Rainbow Shiner” is what Wright describes as “a victory song.” Her mordacious central riff is coupled with dueling guitar-god solos that explode from the stereo spectrum. The starlit “Another Dimension” has it all: pounding drums, palm-muted humbucking chugs, soaring harmonized vocals, and a stark, ethereal bridge that sends listeners deep into the lush sonic landscape that the band set out to create.
Ex Hex were already one of America’s best guitar bands—but on It’s Real, their musical savvy has thrillingly combined with anything-goes curiosity, studio experimentation, and a dedication to refinement, resulting in an album that’s ready to be played at maximum volume.
The last time drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally were in a band together, they were the rhythmic architects for Fugazi, an organization whose decade and a half of disciplined progressivism provided a necessary bridge between the zenith of late-punk expression and everything alternative in rock that followed. In 2016, the two were enlisted by guitarist Anthony Pirog in a conspiracy to subvert and reimagine the power trio, bringing fully into the 21st Century a form that may have reached near perfection with Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys on the very first day of the 1970s.
With a self-titled recording scheduled for release in the Spring of 2018 on Dischord, the Messthetics will widen the reach of a decisive instrumental music that so far, they have only shared with a privileged handful of east coast and southern audiences. Across its eight original compositions and one cover, Anthony guides the sound through complex changes and harmonic densities that might compound, but never confound or muddy its connection with the listener’s body. Recorded by Brendan in their practice space, the group’s debut gives Anthony ample opportunities to swap guitar textures and styles as freely as an octopus changes patterns.
Brendan’s kit has a big heavy bell that he brought back from the Fugazi days. He maneuvers through this rhythmically shifty music with a fluid briskness that is periodically disrupted by the clang of his bell. Joe spent 8 years in Italy, among other things, woodshedding on eastern rhythms counted in 7 and 13, perfect preparation for the oddly-metered work of the Messthetics. He brings a rock-solid foundation to the groove at the same time playing a harmonic complement as ambitious and interesting as Anthony’s lines.
Bands can be dangerous when their members have accrued enough mileage to see their chops season into something like musical wisdom. When that understanding has the rare opportunity to percolate through a collaborative environment founded in love and anchored in gratitude, well, then shit can get rather intense. Anthony Pirog writes difficult music because original music usually is. Yet the ideas that he feeds through the Messthetics, are embraced by the Canty-Lally time machine, not just with precision and nuance, but with soul, joy, and groove. These last three are, indeed, the big guns in this spiritual war that music must become in the post-Trump era.
The initial concept was to mix noise/improv guitar with dance grooves – a kind of apocalyptic dance party where the beat keeps you moving, but the guitarist relentlessly terrorizes you. The first track, “Mythomania” retains elements of that posture, but as reality has itself become more daunting, Anthony – a fearless guitarist – has moved closer to his listeners, and is now willing to astonish without being so confrontational about it. That doesn’t mean the Messthetics in any way retreat from the responsibilities of a “hard” sound, just that its volume and edge never eat the bold structural ideas that define this new music. Anthony will even lubricate his tricky time signatures with energetic two-note riffs to keep the listener head-bobbing through the twisting structures. And when their collective voice is thick and heavy (like on “Crowds and Power”), it is neither ponderous nor plodding. Their performances and this debut recording have a lift and buoyancy that reflect back into the audience the love and gratitude at the foundation of this trio’s journey
— Dr. Thomas Stanley (aka Bushmeat Sound)