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)