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Art Gray Noizz Quintet, 66th Congress, New York City, March 13th 2020

photo credit 'Art Grey Noizz Quintet with Lydia Lunch, photo by Julie Hair'
11 May 2020

Art Grey Noizz Quintet with Lydia Lunch, photo by Julie Hair

On the penultimate night before any reasonably sane gastronome of NYC underground nightlife deemed it unsafe to gather in groups of more than say, two, I made it a point to see Art Gray Noizz Quintet just as The Invisible Hand turned us all into miserable, sarcastic shut-ins (more so than we already are). AGNQ has a unique musicality that really sets them apart from the dark pack. The material itself is simple, melodic, direct and loud; dense, yet spatial. What each player brings to the wobbly, whiskey-soaked table via their individual approach is what also makes them special indeed. They are quite an ensemble.

Australia’s own Art Gray (nee Stu Spasm, he of Lubricated Goat, Beasts of Bourbon et al) leads the charge, growling out mean, soulful vocals and even meaner, soulful-er guitar, while Andrea Sicco (Twin Guns and Arpalice) has a swampy, riff-edged guitar style that elevates the songs with a sophisticated, spooky, and confident air. Sicco provides the perfect cold stab of yin to Gray’s hot punchy yang. Yes, I said ‘hot punchy yang’ and I have no regrets. All we need to say about bassist Skeleton Boy (formerly of Woman, among others), he of the infamous two-stringed bass, is that all he needs is two effing strings. He does more with those two effing strings than most do with four (let alone five and don’t get me started on those Chapman Stick weirdos). Just like Neil Young (What? Stay with me here), he exudes enough passion and pathos from a single note to keep you vibrating for days, more than any bass slinger who thinks that doing the hokey cokey all over the neck makes them a ‘musician’. He puts those noodlers to shame.

The ubiquitous Rich Hutchins on drums (Live Skull, Of Cabbages and Kings, and Isolation Society) always finds the perfect moment to make that perfect hit. Nothing is wasted: he knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em (RIP Kenny Rogers). Few drummers listen, drive, attack and bash in equal measure like Hutchins and his kit mastery is a rarity as much as a blessing. Nikki D’Agostino on sax (Female Genius, Vestments) and Nicholas John Stevens on trombone bring a delirious richness to the already omniscient bass tones Skeleton Boy is pushing into the ozone, laying a thick patch of mid-range and bottom end that the entire band skates over, under and around, blazing out single, sustained notes and arpeggios that put me in the mind of Rocket From The Crypt at their peak, or Ray Manzarek’s dirty, sexy, scary moments. But there is nothing derivative here, mind, these two are in a world of their own and they are definitely the gleaming cherries on this thick slab of unstoppable sound.

But there is also undeniably fine songcraft here. ‘A Call 2 U’ whisks you off into outer space with its beautiful, brutal call and response syncopation; ‘Animal’ swoops and soars with a hip-fuelled ferocity – as the tune kicked off, Gray cheerily commended the audience by saying ‘thanks for coming out and braving the sickness’. Gray preaches and pontificates during ‘Calling All Cars’, and in ‘Here’s Johnny’ he croons darkly over a melody only vaguely reminiscent of Tubeway Army’s aural acme. ‘Say It To My Face’ is a proper nearing-last-orders stomper, while ‘The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’ is a slinky, sulky instrumental where no words are necessary.

I’ve seen AGNQ a number of times in a number of venues over the last couple of years. At Berlin, for example, where the low ceiling and underground lair-vibe elevated their already aggressive set into a bone crushing, tooth-loosening lovefest as time froze for the duration, or standing toe-to-toe and eyeball-to-eyeball with them at Bushwick’s stage-free ABC No Rio in Exile as they spewed their joyful venom directly into our eagerly waiting faces, or on this particular night at 66th Congress where the fully functional, decent sized stage (and semi-functional toilets, sorry) served them particularly well. Every member shone like a star in a single line on stage, and everyone was mixed to perfection (by guest soundman Michael Jung from local heroes Um, no less), the sound filling the appropriately-sized room like dense golden fog. I recently saw an incredible set there by that blazing trio Skull Practitioners, and along with St Vitus, 66th Congress is really is one of the better venues wherein to witness an extremely loud band, large enough to carry the volume but small enough to still feel intimate. Who knows when we can all go out and share our passion for live music again, and these already struggling venues are going to be hit harder than ever by this pandemonium, and we need to support them at the earliest opportunity. But I digress. In conclusion, and I hate saying what a band ‘sounds like’, but if The Birthday Party, Roxy Music and spaghetti western soundtracks are among the things that get you going, AGNQ will wrap itself around your cerebral cortex like a fresh latex glove.