Some music can be an endurance test for the listener, some for the players. Mick Barr’s is both.
For his part: “It can get exhausting. Having to warm up for a half hour before every show and not taking breaks while on stage can be a bit daunting at times. Every now and then I’ll have bouts of weakness in my left arm, but not too much else. There’s more of a mental toll.”
For ours: Hundreds of hyper-speed geometric guitar compositions, both vast and microscopic, scorch our synapses as we try to keep pace. Emotional resonances are bleached by inhuman technicality. Dialogue becomes impossible in the face of a horrifying clarity of vision. The only sane reaction is to let go, be dragged along, eyes wide, mouth gaping.
[A personal note: Several years ago, soon after I contracted RSI in my wrist, I saw Orthrelm play in London. Mick Barr’s relentless performance, displaying the kind of precision, speed and stamina of which only machines should be capable, caused a vivid and painful psychosomatic reaction in my already-tender tendons that still makes itself unpleasantly felt today whenever I hear him play. Talk about a visceral response. Pavlov has nothing on Orthrelm.]
Aside from an early appearance on cassette as Or Rathol Nok, Barr first surfaced in the mid-90s as half of Washington DC’s Crom-Tech, playing the screeching foil to the skitter and batter of drummer Malcolm McDuffie. Over a decade later, Crom-Tech’s two albums of jazz-inflected hyper-prog miniatures remain singularly harsh, thanks to their combination of frenetic velocity, a minuscule attention span, and shrill, treble-intensive attack. Never rest, never repeat.
Taken from a short story written by Barr, Crom-Tech was a prototype for language games to come. Titles such as Norildivoth Crallos-Lomrixth Urthiln, Asristir Vieldriox and Uppragan Srilimia Ixioor Ocrilim Nollfithes Mrithixyl signify a mind obsessed with making startling and complex new patterns out of old material – be it vowels and consonants or snatches of metal guitar-solo climaxes.
“For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable expressing anything artistically with English,” says Barr. “But words are necessary in the presentation, so I made up words that fit the mood to me. I attempted at one point to construct a language, but that seemed stupid right at the start. But having a lot of band names is kind of a fluke. I liked the word ‘or’, so I used that in Or Rathol Nok. Then I needed a name to continue the legacy of that band, so I used Or:12r3. In 2000, Octis came about, which was a Voivodian word to me – but more insectish, which fit the project. Ocrilim came as an extension of that, but with more meaning attached to it. Orthrelm is kind of a fusing of Tolkein's word ‘Orthanc’ and ‘realm’.”
Following the dissolution of Crom-Tech, Barr hooked up with a drum machine to form Octis, and the drafting of drummer Josh Blair completed Orthrelm. (Although, in truth, it’s never that simple, and the boundaries are often blurred.) Both perpetuated, exaggerated and refined the ideas birthed in Crom-Tech – the rudimentary, superfluous vocals were discarded, the brevity surpassed even Naked City levels (Orthrelm’s 2002 EP Asristir Vieldriox easily contains its 99 tracks within 13 minutes), and Barr’s already astonishing playing reached deep into the realms of the absurd. Though his skills are undeniably amazing on a technical level, virtuosic complexity is not the point – this ain’t no Guitar World onanistic fantasy, it’s just the way in which his imagination manifests itself: “There is no philosophy behind playing fast. To me, it just feels comfortable. But my life is not very speedy. Maybe my thoughts are speedy, but I am a calm human.”
In at the deep end: Orthrelm’s OV. Where their previous work exploited the microscopic scale naturally suggested by Barr’s refusal to repeat any phrase or hang on to a note for more than a tenth of a second, OV is Orthrelm writ large – 45 minutes of maddening repetition, minute variation, and dramatic statements that illustrate just how ridiculously micro-composed this stuff is. Think Terry Riley filtered through a grind aesthetic with a shredder’s dexterity. Fractal guitar patterns from the gut end of the fretboard, spiralling outwards into infinity, minute variations highlighting unexpected facets. Every detail is mirrored, anticipated and given physical form by Blair’s knackering dash around his kit. It’s both annoying and delirious, like having a desperate wasp inside your skull, constantly stinging your pleasure centres in its attempts to escape.
Barr’s assessment of his own work is as understated as his music is excessive: “It’s not really experimental…maybe a little. Extreme, sure, but I prefer the word ‘intense’.” But for all his quietude and humility, he has made his presence felt among speedfreaks everywhere. He’s there in the ecstatic math-pop of Marnie Stern, the thrash miniatures of Fantômas, and in every impossible time twist and audacious run by tech-metalcore outfits like Behold the Arctopus, Dillinger Escape Plan and Psyopus. He has also found time to collaborate with the likes of Nondor Nevaï, Quix*o*tic and the Flying Luttenbachers, and to record two improv albums with irrepressible Hella/Marnie drummer Zach Hill. These sessions with Hill have all the energy of Orthrelm, but less of the steely self-control. Both players perfectly complement each other – Hill’s freeform brutalist approach causing Barr to run along the very edge of hungry precipices; Barr’s desperate attempts to rein in the drummer adding a note of beautifully crisp tension. “Zach Hill is one of the only people I have felt comfortable improvising with,” says Barr. “It clicked really well. I prefer not to improvise very often. However, I do like to jam. Improvising and jamming are very different things to me.”
Speed remains the core, even as Barr is multi-tracking himself, weaving warm, welcoming and melodic abstracts. Whereas Orthrelm and Octis were all about shape, about carving tiny figures in sound, Ocrilim uses headlong motion to create texture, wearing it like chain mail. Move fast enough and the blur effect kicks in; you’re no longer a bullet, but a laser beam. Ocrilim is seemingly custom-designed for those who wish Glenn Branca’s music were faster, more varied, more intricate. It represents a considerable shift in the Barr aesthetic, though he himself is unsure how, when and why this happened. “I wasn’t paying attention. Honestly, I don’t really have the best handle on what I’m doing, and why I do it. It’s all very intuitive these days. Perfection is never a priority. Intuition is more of a priority. But Ocrilim’s Annwn is the music I am most proud of at this point.”
Barr’s latest incarnation is Krallice, an obscenely powerful and oddly poignant black-metal collaboration with Behold the Arctopus’s Colin Marston. “It just kind of came together,” he says. “Me and Colin were making some songs for a possible black-metal recording, but then it snowballed into an actual album and band. I was into metal right off the bat. I listen to tons of different musics, but my heart has always been with metal. I've always played music that I consider to be very metal-sounding.” Krallice is more obviously tied in to broader, more recognisable genre conventions than anything he’s ever done. But atop the corpse-painted bludgeon, the pointillist flood of sour sound, made from cascading specks of cold light, is all Barr.
For a man given to prolific and idiosyncratic artistic expression, Barr is somewhat reticent when it comes to exploring what he does in public. The vivid obsessions present in all his work, from the early days right through to Krallice, form a single concept that is very much alive and evolving – and to dissect something that still draws breath is to kill it. “It is much more emotional to me than intellectual,” he says. “However, I can’t really say what the content is, as it’s all pretty subconscious. But it’s also cold and technical, which invokes its own emotions. No one ever misses the point, as the point is all relative to the one thinking it.”
(originally published in Plan B, September 2008)
It's tough for me to be objective about Mogwai. It was they who almost singlehandedly* reignited my passion for music, which had been wilting severely amid the doldrums of the mid-to-late ’90s. (Turns out that sufficient ambient exposure to Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene is enough to make you lose faith in an entire art form.) The first I heard of Mogwai was John Mulvey’s review of Young Team in the NME, October 1997. It spoke of “sprawling, reckless music” that was “intensely beautiful” yet contained “searing riff-madness any self-respecting death metal band would kill for”. Who could resist such a prospect? It was alluring enough that, for the first time in my life, I shelled out for a record (on double vinyl, even) without tasting a note. The opener was tantalising enough, warm drones humming as a voice hesitatingly describes the band in almost absurdly glowing terms. Then the ominous rumble of ‘Like Herod’ loomed into earview, and before I knew it that ungainly, incongruous, bastard surprise of a RIFF punched my face right off of my head. Twice in a row. How could something so vicious be so gorgeous? Deep, instant love.
Over the next few years, many a live experience cemented our relationship. Their headline slot at the Astoria in 1999 was a seminal experience. They were beautiful, of course. But even after many years of metal gigs, the volume levels here were revelatory. Mogwai were unfeasibly, ridiculously vast, so much so that for a while everything just went… white… as my brain reeled from the sensory overload. The air itself seemed to be on the verge of friction-induced ignition. It felt like hot pink rain on my skin. Young kids next to me huddled on the floor, their hands over their ears (one of them threw up on my shoe). It was pure visceral pleasure from all-consuming sound – it was the first time I’d experienced this level of blissful sonic extremity, and it ensured that I’d later fall for the likes of Merzbow, Sunn o))) and MBV. And yet, even amid the extremity and brutality, Mogwai were unashamedly, nakedly emotional – romantic, even. Years later, my (now, still) wife and I used ‘Helicon 1’ at the start of our wedding ceremony.
But over the years, they changed. Or, rather, I did. In truth, Mogwai failed to be what they never were, but what my inner teenage metalhead wanted them to be: ALL THE LOUD BITS, ALL THE TIME. With every album, the gnarly passages were scaled back more and more. I kept up, but didn’t really understand any more. Their power seemed diluted by their countless inferior imitators. The words ‘Rock Action’ began to seem like a cruel tease. It was only with The Hawk is Howling, specifically with the way that ‘I’m Jim Morrison’ so subtly and inexorably blossoms, that I finally grasped what they’d been doing all along – striving for a certain form of nameless, profound human beauty, and doing so with increasing eloquence, even if they often whispered about it when the younger me wanted them to yell themselves hoarse.
After the slavish fanboy devotion and a period of mild disappointment/ambivalence, I’ve now entered a more mature and appreciative phase. The most recent encounter was at the Grand Ole Opry on their home turf. Turns out they’re older too. Whodathunkit? More assured and confident. Technically impeccable. Funny as fuck. It was wondrous, but still… they seemed smaller. The loud bits don’t seem to convey quite the same absurd world-ending/creating power that they used to. Have they smoothed out the ultra-dynamics? Or am I comparing the actual experience before me with an impossibly exaggerated memory? In all fairness, the unabated yen they gave me for extreme volume has probably left my gig-ravaged ears in no fit state to judge.
The prospect of a new Mogwai album is therefore a source of both quivering excitement and queasy trepidation. Hardcore… begins with a grandiose mid-paced opener a la ‘Jim Morrison’ or ‘Auto Rock’ – piano, broad dramatic strokes, slow evolution and stratospheric guitar climax, the main guitar line in polyrhythmic relief to the main pulse. Perhaps not 100% satisfying in itself, but an effective, if wrong-footing introduction. ‘Mexican Grand Prix is the first of several surprises – a lithe, sombre pop song with a krautrock pulse and android vocals. Blindfolded and handcuffed, you’d never guess this was Mogwai. Stereolab, maybe? Quickspace?
‘Rano Pano’ is extraordinary, one of their finest tunes yet. The hugely fuzzy central riff is at once alien and familiar, eternal but indefinable, complex but natural, somewhere between a lost Gallic folk melody and South-East Asian temple chant. It has the feel of a sculpture unlocked from marble, something that’s always been there but no one noticed it before.
The downbeat ‘Death Rays’ and ‘Letters to the Metro’ are typical of much of the band’s work since CODY. A sense of melancholy, expressed through pianos, guitars and measured restraint. Melodically beautiful and sonically rich, but ultimately Mogwai at a stroll. The pace hastens with ‘San Pedro’ – an uncharacteristically speedy instrumental rocker, zippier and less brutal than its precursors ‘Batcat’ and ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’, more wiry and sinewy, strewn with intricate guitar patterns. The most optimistic tune here, and not just in terms of its celebratory epithet (the first rule of Mogwai: the titles mean nothing), ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ revisits the motorik pulse with vibing synths and processed vocals. ‘How to be a Werewolf’ is softer, but no less redolent of the spirit of Dinger that courses through much of this album. Very pretty, very cheerfully sad, climaxing in some lavish, wibbly Robert Fripp phrasings and a pleasingly incongruous big arena-rock key shift towards the end.
The last two tracks are the most old-school. They pull the tricks that those who don’t really listen to Mogwai usually associate with them – quiet intros exploding into plesiosaur-bruising riffs. But they’re great examples of the form. ‘Too Raging to Cheers’ has a brilliantly ugly and brutal cascading payoff, while ‘You’re Lionel Richie’ is simpler, its melody extending into a glorious climactic, low-end assault. Both are over way, way too soon. But I would say that.
2011 finds Mogwai in undeniably great shape, exploring plenty of bold new ideas and refining old ones, with enough familiar territory to not scare away the faithful. They’re smarter, more proficient, certainly more subtle… in virtually all of the ways that count, they’re better, more fully realised than ever. The only downside is that I hold them to an impossible standard. At one time they saved my life with sound. But fourteen years on, they’re still enriching it – I can’t ask for more than that.
* See also The Monsoon Bassoon.