SAN FRANCISCO — As the Messthetics took The Chapel stage on Monday night, bassist Joe Lally gave a shout out to the legendary San Francisco music magazine Maximum Rock and Roll and the Black Lives Matter movement. The mix of punk and politics was no surprise given Lally’s musical pedigree as a founding member of the Washington, D.C. band Fugazi.
Lally was joined onstage by the other half of the Fugazi’s rhythm section, drummer Brendan Canty. The precise pummeling grooves the pair locked into weren’t surprising either. What was surprising was Messthetics guitarist, Anthony Pirog’s frenetic six-string virtuosity during a performance that leaped between disparate musical genres including jazz, surf rock, avant-garde noise and atmospheric soundscapes.
Pirog hovered over his expansive pedal board as if he were in command of his own starship. His shredding ping-ponged between sonic elements: At times his playing was angular and subdued, at others his rapid and unrestrained strumming coaxed excited sonic barrages from his amplifiers. Prior to collaborating with Lally and Canty, Pirog was a well-known D.C. guitarist, having played in Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s prog rock act Skysaw. In addition to last year’s Messthetics release, Pirog is also featured on an upcoming album by Five Time Surprise, an avant-garde supergroup in which he joins forces with freaky fret master Henry Kaiser.
The trio played most of its self-titled debut, alternating between gentle soundscapes like “Once Upon a Time” and galloping rockers like “Serpent Tongue.” A somber and moody song like “Inner Ocean,” with its slow-building dynamic, might give way to the Van-Halen-style shredding at the beginning of “Quantum Path.” Songs like “Crowds and Power” showed off the band’s razor-like precision even as they melted the audiences faces off. At times Pirog’s jazz training became apparent as he fired twisting sheets of sound, sounding a bit like he was leading Black Sabbath through a version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”
For their part, Lally and Canty appeared to be having a blast. In typical Fugazi fashion, the two studiously avoided any bling. Canty made fantastic rock and roll faces at Pirog as they whipped through the complex song arrangements. Canty also appeared to enjoy playing a large bell suspended next to his drum set. The tuned clang added some ornamentation to the wall of sound.
The freewheeling musical interplay of the band often sounded like improvisation, but ultra-quick changes and rhythmic variations attested to the fact that this incredibly complex sonic tapestry was both scripted and obsessively rehearsed. Pirog was able to coax a seemingly endless variety of tones from his guitar, both by manipulating the guitar effects at his feet and by deploying a variety of playing techniques from his enormous bag of musical tricks. Lally, who unlike Pirog plugged his instrument directly into his amp and created sounds using only his fingers, provided a solid foundation for the music without muddying up the mix by trying to match Pirog’s velocity.
The band’s encore included a snippet of Miles Davis’ “Black Satin,” which suited Canty’s funky percussion and Pirog’s rapid fire guitar noise.
Shudder to Think frontman Craig Wedren took to a keyboard, laptop and some pedals to augment his sound as he opened the show with songs from his solo albums, as well as a couple from his old band. Dressed in a robe-like blue shirt and jeans, Wedren fingerpicked a red electric guitar while his laptop provided backup voices and other instrumentation on songs like “Be A Man.” Others like “Red House,” from Shudder to Think’s 1991’s Funeral at the Movies, were more stripped down and bluesy. Wedren played several songs from his 2017 solo album, Adult Desire, including the title track and “Join the Zoo.”
At the end of his set, Wedren brought out The Messthetics for an emotional and sprawling cover of “It’s Raining Today” by Scott Walker, who died last month.