Click here to [close]

Friday, March 15, 2024

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis - self-titled (Impulse, 2024)

By Martin Schray

Sometimes I DJ with my buddy Thomas in a bar. Neither of us knows what the other has taken with him, we like to surprise each other. Last time Thomas presented James Brandon Lewis’s Eye of I album and played “Fear Not (feat. The Messthetics),“ and what can I say: It blew me away! What surprised me most was the fact that this is obviously a blatant rock song - and Thomas doesn’t actually like rock. “Well, the exception proves the rule“, he answered with a smile. In contrast to him, I’ve always had a soft spot for rock and immediately fell for the descending chords, the melodrama of the sound, the sweeping gesture, the Bad-Brains-meet-Pharoah-Sanders moments. And indeed: The interesting thing about this collection of musicians is the cultural clash of hardcore and jazz, because the Messthetics consist of the two former Fugazi members Joe Lally (bass) and Brendan Canty (drums) plus guitarist Anthony Pirog, the latter being the link to jazz. His solo albums Palo Colorado Dream and In Side have already shown him as an exceptional musician. He’s also the one who made the connection to James Brandon Lewis, as both have known each other from sessions with iconic free jazz drummer William Hooker, which resulted in Hooker’s 2018 album Pillars... At The Portal. “Since day one of knowing Anthony, me and him just fit,” says Lewis. “We looked at each other after that William Hooker session, and we was like, ‘Damn, this shit is on point’.” After Pirog then took part in Brandon Lewis’s An Unruly Manifesto, it was only a logical decision to release a complete Messthetics album with the saxophonist.

However, anyone expecting a simple continuation of the previous collaboration will be disappointed. Just the opposite is the case, as some of the nine tracks are ballads (“Asthenia“ or “Three Sisters"), weird swing numbers (“Railroad Tracks Home“), post punk à la The Psychedelic Furs (“Emergence“), hard funk (“That Thang“) and almost classic jazz rock (“L’Orso“). Only “Fourth Wall", the album’s finale, is reminiscent of “Fear not“, since it’s an uptempo rocker par excellence. On that track, as so often on the album, Pirog and Lewis play their solos one after the other, but you can still hear a certain tension and connection between the two. When Lewis ends his statement with a gloomy howl, Pirog takes up the saxophonist’s last remarks with a soulful line. What is more, diversity is a theme on the album in other ways. Like in a giant cooking pot, many things are mixed together, rhythmic and harmonic hooks are constantly added. This can again be heard in “Emergence“, when the piece literally explodes in the chorus, as if you were shifting up a gear in the car, which happens here - as often in the pieces - through Brandon Lewis’s saxophone. It’s one of the characteristics of the band’s music. The blind understanding between guitar and saxophone “pushed the song like crazy,“ Joe Lally recalls of a passage when Lewis and Pirog when Pirog and Brandon Lewis started throwing wild solos back and forth to each other during a live set before the band went to the studio to record. It was a moment when intensity was physically palpable and which almost lit Lally up: “You’re just holding on and (keep) going“, he remembers telling himself.

This vibe can be felt on almost all the tracks and it’s possibly most evident in “Boatly“. The track starts like a trip-hop ballad - imagine Portishead unplugged - with drum brushes and a sluggish groove, but after four and a half minutes it transforms with an irresistible, yet simple increase in tempo and leads into a breathtaking coda in which Lewis’s overblown screams and Pirog’s plucked chords sound like a young Archie Shepp meets Bill Frisell. Anthony Pirog describes this part as a highlight of the album - and I gladly second that.

Another important surprise is the label. Impulse! is still regarded as something like the holy temple of jazz - and this album is by no means always jazz. However, the sound and the force with which Lewis plays here is clearly reminiscent of John Coltrane as well as the aforementioned Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. And even in the 1960s, the label was always in tune with the times, as it is now with this album. Joe Lally says that he can hardly wait to see his band’s name next to the unmistakable orange, white and black Impulse! logo. “I’m trying to be cool about it,” Brendan Canty says about the fact of being associated with such a legendary catalog. “Hopefully nobody’s going to figure out that I’m the imposter in the temple.”

This is certainly not to be feared, because The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis will guaranteed be one of the highlights of this year.

The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis is available on vinyl, as a CD and as a download.

Watch “Emergence“ here:


Captain_Flint said...

The lineup is a pure delight: Fugazi + Pirog + James Brandon Lewis... You can't beat that combo!

Captain_Flint said...

Wow! The lineup is a delight: Fugazi + Pirog + James Brandon Lewis... you can't possibly beat that combo!

Martin Schray said...

The music won't disappoint, either, Captain.