Approaching New York's Gavin Brown Gallery a few weeks ago, I could hear the sound of Mick Barr's guitar emanating from a block away. It's hard to mistake that sound for anything else. He was the aural centerpiece to the packed opening, which had a black, heavy metal bass mounted on one wall, and a room that consisted of inky scrawls, smears of charcoal, and dripped candle wax. Across the immense wall, the coal-black doodles coalesced into H.R. Giger-like alien shapes; other times they just looked like obsessively intricate patterns of scribbles. Barr's performance epitomized the night's subliminal metal tendencies. To most ears, it sounded like he could be doing finger warm-ups, meticulously focused on a four-note bar from an Iron Maiden guitar solo, repeating the lightning-quick lick over and over and over and over and over....
When Mick Barr plays with drummer Josh Blair as the duo Orthrelm, the interplay between electric guitar and drum kit defies both honed chops and wood-shedding telepathy. Furious shredding carries far beyond its normal location in a hard-rock song (think the opening of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" or the break of a Van Halen song). Rather than a speedy metal ejaculation lasting but a few seconds, Orthrelm's outburst is stretched to tantric lengths. There's no finer example of such aesthetic practice than last year's metal machine music endurance test, OV, a single-track 45-minute onslaught of algorithmic riffs and rolls. The duo rips as if attempting to play every possible combination, as if to crack the secret code of heavy metal. How they practice and perfect it is beyond human capacity; it most resembles cybernetics or a hive mind, mid-swarm.
OV makes for a galvanizing listen, your level of mesmerization dependent on how much repetition you can tolerate, or how long you could listen to a scratched and skipping copy of Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss before finally turning it off. Not that they don't let up: 10, 20, and 30 minutes in, there are breathers. Blair's toms roil unceasingly before Barr's needling, metallic frequencies return. His hammer-ons and pick-scratching burrow deep into your third eye--or else into your cresting migraine headache. Health warning: Witnessing Orthrelm's relentless riffing will make your carpal tunnel flare up, too.
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