Drummer Kevin Shea (lately of jazz explorers Mostly Other People Do The Killing) and bassist George Draguns have been friends and musical collaborators for two decades now, first coming together—along with Ian Williams of Battles and Don Caballero—in the embryonic version of free rock trio Storm and Stress. That project would proceed, with Eric Emm (also of Don Caballero, and Tanlines) on bass, to put out two dense and difficult albums for Touch & Go that made good on their name, and plowed a similar furrow to avant-rock savants US Maple in the trio’s determination to scrawl outside the lines of the established rock song form.

Cut to many years later, and Shea and Draguns cross orbits with Philadelphia guitarist Nick Millevoi, himself no stranger to the pages of Burning Ambulance for his free-jazz-rock trio Many Arms, his meditative solo work, and collaborations with the likes of “heavy jazz” unit Dead Neanderthals. As Draguns tells it, the trio only practiced together once, on the day before hitting the studio to lay down the four tracks that comprise their first, eponymous record as Form and Mess. (Buy it from the label.)

That the name they chose is an echo of that earlier band is no accident—Draguns describes it as a “logical continuation” of the project he began with Shea—but where the music of Storm & Stress twisted into deliberately contorted forms of sturm und drang, this new trio keep their scrawling within more strongly delineated borders. And that’s to their benefit, as the result is a song like opener “Introduction To Improvisation” making good on its title. The track fades in to rolling thunder, Draguns dragging his bassline like a trawler’s net, tumbling over Shea’s drums while Millevoi lays down solos with his trademark chiming tone. But there’s a sense of structure behind the cacophony, a feeling of three musicians heading in the same direction that bears out when their parallel lines merge for the final stretch.

Next up is “Three Heads,” a messier take on the Don Caballero math-rock template circa American Don with Shea’s frantic fills and Millevoi’s almost surf-guitar runs replacing Damon Che‘s forceful percussion and Williams’ looped finger tapping respectively. It’s the longest track of the set, at more than 11 minutes, and the freest in form: Draguns holds down a solid two-note sort-of groove at the bookends but within the players do their own thing, though perceivably responding to each other all the while.

“Appalachian Moonshine Dance” is the straightest number here in terms of melody, led by Millevoi’s back-country riffing into a wild hooch chase through the backroads, Draguns and Shea hot on his trail. Millevoi assumes the lead again on the closer, “Children’s Books About Eugenics,” but only insofar as taking the first step, his guitar lines serving as prompts for Draguns’ four-string rumbles and Shea’s loose percussion, a mess of sticks and rims and cymbals. The trio soon coalesces into a crescendoing groove, then bursts apart in a furious free jazz romp—but again, keeping the clatter firmly within the lines, so the guitarist can reel in the other players for the intro-reprising coda.

That’s the form in this mess, a pattern the record adheres to throughout: establish a riff or a groove, blow it apart, piece it back together, pause, then repeat. And it makes for an invigorating 35 minutes.

MacDara Conroy

Stream the album on YouTube:

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