Jumping in my car on a chilly night heading to the Nob Hill neighborhood-on Route 66 in Albuquerque, to see mssv (short for "mainstream stop valve"), I never envisioned that 45 days later I would be watching them record their next album in Long Beach, CA.
Covid caused countless gigs to be cancelled during 2020-2022. I certainly had no expectations on this sleepy night. Finally getting to go to an enjoyable gig again while seeing a couple of friends seemed good enough.
After being sequestered at my home in Placitas, New Mexico for what felt like an eternity, I was excited to see Mike Watt as a band member performing with Steve Hodges from "Contemplating the Engine Room" and guitar -wizard Mike Baggetta. I had listened to some of the mssv songs and was enthusiastic about hearing Mike Baggetta coax magic from his guitar.
Of the 48 gigs mssv played on the "Haru Tour 2022," the gig in ABQ was unlike any other. Watt explained the distinction in his hoot page diary below:
Thursday - March 17, 2022
at the Guild Cinema
3405 Central Ave NE
"Our set tonight is prolly the most unique one of the tour: three "chunks" of it are instrumentals we're doing like the others but the "chunks" between them are totally improvised and I'm using what's on the screen behind us to inform my inventions on bass and they're trippy: images of trains, parts of steam motors, blobby images, streaking images and totally psych stuff. you wouldn't believe the respect the gig-goers give us, absolutely no yammering and the gig's clean (all the seats sold) too. "
Watt continues: "...this is a theatre and we're set up in front of the screen of this kind of olde-timey theatre and the plan is for the gig people to show a bunch of short movies and have us play them. Mike Baggetta wants us to to do our four new instrumental pieces plus the two covid19 seven inch single (they're also instrumentals) and then improvise the rest to what we see behind us. trippy."
Baggetta/Hodges and watt served up some inspiring improvisational jams while gazing backwards at black and white films of locomotives barreling down the tracks and even some detailed schematic slides of a mainstream stop valve. This band was enjoying the rapt attention from the audience. Afterwards, watt introduced me to Mike Baggetta & Stephen Hodges. I returned home to snowfall; an impressive way to finally enjoy live music again.
Flash forward to May Day at BIG EGO recording studio in Long Beach, California- I was back home where I had lived for 50 years in Southern California. Jacaranda Trees were popping & dropping their lavender-blue flowers behind the studio as I went to knock on the door in the back. This was my first time observing an album being recorded and that notion came with considerable curiosity.
The band members performed the 8 tunes comprising the "Human Reaction" LP - 4 one night and 4 the next night alternating them on the Haru Tour. Watt was quick to reiterate to me that the ABQ gig was unlike all the other 47 gigs; this meant I had no idea that might transpire sans a reference point. The clever idea by Mike Baggetta ensured the 8 tracks would be recorded primarily in 1 or 2 takes that afternoon and again in the evening after watt played a gig in San Pedro. Overdubs and lead vocals were performed by Baggetta the following day while backing vocals were added later in Florida.
The trio was hyper-focused on making a great record & the results are commendable. Steve Hodges switched out his bass drum a few times to fine effect on the finished product. Having watched the studio sessions and now listening to the Human Reaction LP, Hodges time/effort paid off helping to set the context within each track. Hodges & watt locked down the tight arrangements written by Mike Baggetta; clearly this trio is a band in every sense of the word with a keen chemistry/deep mutual respect for each other and the successful results felt upon listening to the final product.
Mike Baggetta, the youngest member by a long shot, is adept at combining his Berklee School of Music education with a large bag of sonic surprises that are fun to witness in person. It's no joke this band sounds like no other- why waste time trying to pigeonhole them into a genre or category ? That seems pointless when playing the album & enjoying the intricate arrangements featuring varied time signatures. Watching watt & Hodges with their studied intensity as Mike B. guided them to the designated destination was immensely pleasurable.
Looking ahead to the 2023 Aki Tour, I eagerly await their live gig on 9/23/23 @ sister on Route 66 which is a 25-mile drive from my home. The 23rd is John Coltrane's birthday and that might fire up mike watt to a higher level of energy-though he plays each gig as though it were his last. This tour will follow a commendable template from the Haru Tour in '22; expect to enjoy 7 brand new songs spread over 2 successive nights in different towns. A few surprises are in store for the encore and plenty of improvisation too; assuredly, the band will be locked in every night.
The first leg on the West Coast will be a dozen successive nights with a brief early breather- followed by 46 more consecutive gigs across the US & Canada. Planet Marfa in the great art town of Maria, Texas just might be a consideration on 11/2. Is it worth a 7-hour drive? It will be near tour's end & seeing how the new material evolves should be fascinating. Certainly, come early November of this year, mssv will be ready to lay down the 7 new tracks on November 5th-the day after tour's end.
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A journey through the mssv "Human Reaction" lp
It's time for some personal insights gleaned from the latest album released on 9/1/23:
"Say What You Gotta Say""
the trio pops out swiftly with an up-tempo number; a lo-fi sound kicking in seconds later in HQ. Hodges provides a surging/driving beat- watt is in lockstep while Mike Baggetta summons personal memories for me of Tom Verlaine singing along with rapid guitar firing on all cylinders. Love the Nels Cline influence (my opinion) and the locomotive has departed the depot steady and at full speed.
"French Road Drifters"
More expressive fretwork on guitar bolstered by power chord crescendos combined with quirky dynamics building & climbing towards its destination. Watt and Stephen Hodges furnish the appropriate backbeat. Baggetta provides a jazzy rising sensation of forward progress throughout-always forward if not in a straight line. The detours help define this trio's signature sound.
"Baby Ghost (From The 1900s)"
I recall observing Hodges deploying a very thick chain plopped on his snare with right hand. Just don't be swirling that deadly weapon my way please! Baggetta bending some notes with great dexterity with his tremolo bar getting a workout, while watt is anchored to the bass drum. Jazzy ascending guitar, replete with Baggetta's trademark techniques. Disclaimer- this is one reporter's opinion; you might have a completely different take.
Hodges nails the intro on one of my favorite tracks here .The drumming pairs with a pleasingly measured/bass guitar slowly elevating things while Baggetta enhances the mood. Baggetta & watt trade one word back and forth "pillow talk" retorts with increasing dramatic effect. Point/counterpoint ? We have another stellar performance/execution with a crispness that mssv display consistently. This sort of precision appears to be a fixture in the trio's DNA. The call/response is an inventive approach to the notion of what pillow talk might resemble in the mssv reality. Hodges punctuates the proceedings- guiding the song to a soft landing.
the beat/street poetry is nearly shouted for extra punch & jagged herky-jerky guitar playing makes me think of Joe Baiza and Saccharine Trust. Blistering guitar runs that gyrate -paired with some self-insightful lyrics of Baggetta's. " I think about I /think about me/ I think about you, so I think that I'm free" . Mike Baggetta displays some enjoyable wordplay with his singing & lyrics. Pretty catchy hooks during the refrains. Can't wait to hear the 7 new songs all with lyrics and vocals. Human Reaction consists of half instrumental songs/half with words. Watt & Hodges layer their chorus backing vocals quite nicely.
We have another a slower paced song here that tees up the final two songs. I seem to recall Hodges switching out the bass drum for a huge one-that low end sound vibrations fortified by a Zen-like baseline from watt that is slow/steady and was hypnotic to watch in Big Ego's great sounding studio. Big kudos to Chris Schlarb, who produced & mixed the album and recording engineer Devin O'Brien. These two were never in the way while being fully aware of what Mike Baggetta and the band wanted to achieve here. Great professional atmosphere at Big Ego Studio in Long Beach, California. Baggetta builds tension via discordant rising and sinking sensations here. Mike B. thrives at creating a distinctive mood/feeling for each song and the other two seasoned musicians serve that dynamic with a simmering intensity and strong focus. Buzzing thunder boom bass by watt gets strengthened by Hodges spot-on instincts. " junk haiku" provides further proof of how well this trio excels on the slower numbers.
the sequencing of the 8-song cycle on this album feels as though we are being led somewhere as the pace accelerates one more time. Mike Baggetta deploys harmonics in just the right places & the band lays back to allow some frenetic riffing alternating with some power chording and jangly shredding-the guitar always reacts its destination and some harmonics add flair. It seems Robert Fripp would enjoy the fluid guitar work... watt & Hodges are tight/crisp throughout. Mike Baggetta wrote the bass parts as a means to maintain cohesion buffeted by Stephen Hodges steady beats. Pity parody is another up-tempo song that imbues the listener with the sensation of traveling swiftly physically; watt & Hodges deserve credit for laying down the tracks on the railroad, while Mike Baggetta propels the train along swiftly during this song. Most often, one can feel from the music that this potent trio arrives exactly where they want to; that's a big strength mssv works hard to maintain throughout the entire album in my book. This song clocks in at just under 3 minutes, though the rapidly winding pace feels somewhat quicker, thanks to the roller coaster sensations and seamless execution.
"In This Moment"
The closing track is a picturesque soothing reflection where Baggetta trots out his most philosophical lyrics yet, paired with a suitably dreamy sensibility. Listen and enjoy this ideal choice for soft landing this record to its final destination. An extended intro fosters introspection, adding sonic depth while successfully weaving the compelling themes describing th peyot tinged New Mexico skies & vibes perfectly where I have spent the past 13 years, savoring the unique ambience felt in the Land of Enchantment. In This Moment is buffeted by the dynamic duo of watt & Hodges who created a similar mood at the end of "Contemplating the Engine Room" along with Nels Cline on guitar. That particular album had a huge effect on Mike Baggetta and here we are treated with a nod gifting the listener with another- worldly closing. Mike's spoken words adroitly capture the essence of what one often feels amidst this magical/mystical setting. Mike Watt's bass playing evokes a dreamy foundation for everything to congeal; the listener is given the opportunity to sonically enjoy a taste of this place I call home-New Mexico. Simultaneously, Stephen Hodges gently elevates his consummate creativity adding much color & texture.
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Plenty to digest in the 33 minute running time for this Human Reaction. Looking forward to experiencing these and the new songs to be served up for this "Aki Tour 2023" in a live setting... Marfa, Texas seems spot to soak up the plentiful delights offered to the listener within the eight songs constituting a highly creative and ambitious album to close out 2023. It should not matter what town you decide to witness a gig or two-an enjoyable evening is assured for all.
- Robert Julian