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“I’m trying to turn into an outside person,” Orthrelm guitarist Mick Barr declares, shivering and shoving his thumbs through the holes worn through just above his flannel shirt cuffs. “Not necessarily an outdoorsman,” the bearded guitarist explains, “but someone who’s outside a lot.”
Sitting on the wooden back porch of Barr’s Mount Pleasant group house, he and Orthrelm drummer Josh Blair—also bearded and decked in flannel—are taking in some November night air after a full week of recording in their ADAT-equipped basement “ministudio,” where the duo just completed songs for a 7-inch and a compilation to be released by the very metal Boston label Hydra Head.
In the faint light emanating from Barr’s kitchen, Orthrelm looks more like a pair of off-duty park rangers than a couple of headbangin’ D.C. punks. And despite the extreme nature of their avant-metal machine music, the 20-something Barr and Blair both come across as quiet and urbane, sipping Red Zinger tea out of big mugs and petting a golden pooch named Hutch.
“We don’t have any good stories,” straight-edger Barr insists. It’s a strange claim coming from half of an instrumental duo that sometimes writes its songs “on the dashboard” pre-show and is set to release an 11-minute, 99-song EP, Asristir Vieldriox, that is, according to the giggly Barr, “pretty hard to listen to.”
Formed last July, Orthrelm is a more restless version of Barr’s previous duo, the metal/jazz-fusion band Crom-Tech, which broke up in 1998. In the interim, the Connecticut transplant walked dogs for pay and “watched movies” while searching for a new drummer capable of backing up his endless streams of fast, squiggly arpeggios. Barr even resorted to “that shit with the drum machine,” aka Uppragn Srilimia Ixioor Ocrilm Nollfithes Mrithixyl, a double-CD of direct-to-four-track guitar and programmed beats released on the Peterbilt label under the name Octis.
Enter Kensington, Md., native Blair, drummer for the New York-based improv outfit ABCS. “[It’s] really loose in its format,” Blair says about the trance-inducing trio, “and I was interested in doing something that wasn’t loose at all.” So after ABCS saxophonist Gabe Andruzzi passed Blair’s digits on to his friend Barr, the drummer began studying what would become the earliest Orthrelm songs via cassettes.
“For the first six months or so, I was commuting up to New York,” Barr says. It was during that time that the pair wrote the 16 minutes of music that make up its trebly Tolotta debut, Iorxhscimtor, which Blair engineered in his Adams Morgan group house after he moved back to D.C. “We recorded live in my basement on the eight-track,” Blair says. “I ran into the [Boss Metal Zone] pedal,” Barr says, “and then directly into the eight-track.” “I don’t think there’s a sound of an amp,” Blair adds, explaining the claustrophobic vibe of the guitars.
Whereas Crom-Tech could swing and groove at times, Orthrelm jerks and twists like a winding path to Mordor. “There is very little repetition in terms of playing a part, like, two or three times over,” Barr says. “That doesn’t happen much, but there is a lot of repetition over the whole fuckin’ thing. Over everything we’ve written, there’s an infinite amount of repetition. I just do a lot of the same tricks over and over again.” Which means that Iorxhscimtor’s 12 cuts work more like symphonic movements than individual songs, sounding like Edgard Varese on fast-forward.
Live, the band just runs ’em all together. “Most of our shows, we don’t give anyone a chance to say anything bad in terms of heckling,” Blair says, “because we usually don’t stop very much and we don’t play very long.” If you’ve never experienced the live whine of Barr’s solid-state Marshall (for some reason, the guitarist thinks “tubes suck”), the Middle-earth rock of Iorxhscimtor is a pretty accurate portrait. “That’s the stuff that we’ve been playing,” Blair says. “Those are the original songs that Mick taught me.”
But Orthrelm’s latest jamming reflects a looser approach. “Now we’re definitely moving towards a little bit more improv-is-zising-
type shit,” Barr says. “The [new] songs that we write together are definitely getting longer.” Blair affirms: “It’s definitely a different process.”
Moving briefly into the kitchen, Barr pops a rough mix of the week’s spastic labors into a boombox on the counter. Like some hesher cranking his favorite Rush tune, Blair immediately starts air-drumming to his own Elvin Jones-on-crack blast beats. Meanwhile, Barr and his Quix*o*tic bandmate Mira Billotte, who’s been hanging out for the evening, begin dancing to the impossible rhythms like clumsy pagans caught up in some ancient ritual. For a moment, everyone is oblivious to anything not of the Orth realm.
“This is pretty much what we do,” Barr says as we move back to the porch. “All I do is just sit around and plan music and plan records; I just think about it all the time.” Although the band doesn’t exactly pay for itself, Barr and Blair have still made it a more or less full-time endeavor. “We’re both unemployed,” Barr says, his legs shivering with the cold. And in addition to practicing five days a week when Blair—who still plays with ABCS—is in town, Orthrelm has gone on five “minitours” with folks such as neo-No Wavers Erase Errata and tight-slacks hipsters the Locust. “I would see that, like, a friend’s band was coming through,” Barr says, “and I would call, and then we would just tour with them.”
Thus far live shows have been on the “indie-rock side of things,” and the guys don’t appear interested in playing a more “metallized” circuit. “I wouldn’t want to play metal shows,” Barr says. “I wouldn’t want to be playing out at Jaxx. I don’t know…something about that scene seems really unnatural.” But Blair says that he’s more worried about getting shown up: “It’s a running joke that I’m very afraid of playing metal shows, personally, because I don’t feel adequate as a metal drummer.”
The two briefly entertain more metal talk (Barr’s a big fan of Suffocation and Voivod), but their true passion evidently lies elsewhere. “We haven’t even fuckin’ touched [on] beards yet!” Barr says. When the guitarist openly fantasizes about a bearded Ozzy Osbourne, Blair posits: “He looks like he can’t grow one.” Barr laughs. “Yeah, that’s true,” he says. “He might be one of them weirdos.” —Brent Burton