The Zorn Supremacy: The saxist and his cohorts reshape metal without a single guitar.
The Zorn Supremacy: The saxist and his cohorts reshape metal without a single guitar.

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As half of Orthrelm and ringleader of various side projects, former D.C. guitarist Mick Barr (who left in 2003 and now lives in New York) has credentials in minimalist avant-metal that would seem to make him a natural fit for John Zorn’s Tzadik Records. The label is a home for experimental fringe-dwellers in all genres, but it has long been timid about even the most experimental metal. It’s had very few such releases, and most of them (like Kayo Dot’s Choirs of the Eye and Time of Orchids’ Sarcast While) have been shoehorned into the Composer Series—ostensibly for “classical concert music.” Not only is that positioning misleading, but it’s surely tough on the players: If avant-garde musicians can’t fit in at an avant-garde label, where can they fit in?

Iohargh Wended—Barr’s second Octis disc and first for Tzadik—purports to combine “the power of rock with a classical asceticism,” but the description shows a misunderstanding of classical music. The album is speed metal—the gaudiest, showiest metal of them all. The songs consist of Barr’s breakneck, atonal guitar runs, composed as freewheeling but repetitive cycles, underscored by a cheap-sounding drum machine. There’s no question of Barr’s chops; the complicated riffs and phrases he effortlessly burns through are incredible, to say the least.

But virtuosic playing does not classical music (or even good music) make; the category implies architecture and direction. And Barr’s fireworks have very little of either. While each of the 16 tracks (which comprise the two extended pieces, “Iohargh” and “Wended”) has its own internal structure, more often than not those structures move the music in circles and leave off in midair. Moreover, Barr’s focus on repetitive figures gets him stuck in a rut once every 45 seconds or so; with the drum machine’s synthesized, machine-gun staccato beats employed on nine of the segments, the music becomes so convincingly glitchy that it necessitates stopping mid-CD at least once to make sure the damn thing’s not defective.

Actually, the drum machine is indicative of the problem. Orthrelm has a human drummer, Josh Blair, who serves as counterpoint to Barr’s experimental flash, giving it contour and momentum. Even on 2005’s unbearably monotonous OV, the duo’s most recent album, Blair’s incessant rolling feels desperate to push things forward. Octis’ box, on the other hand, is completely subservient; it’s there for no other apparent reason besides accenting the guitar vamps. Barr seems to have gone to a lot of trouble to find a drum machine that sounds as coldly mechanical as possible; it may serve his abstract purpose, but it also helps Iohargh Wended to sonically spin its wheels, making tracks like “rr-2” (part of “Iohargh”) virtually indistinguishable from “iomm-1” (part of “Wended”). Then again, maybe that’s why he gave them such flat, anonymous titles.

The exception, appropriately, is the one title that doesn’t sound like some sort of model number. “Wended,” the album’s longest and penultimate segment, is surprising in its decipherable, linear construction—even if it takes its sweet time to build up. The piece does get bogged down in two-note Klaxons; every time it does, though, Barr subtly varies and develops his way free and clear of them and onto the next idea. Its eight-plus minutes is grand, delicate, and, if not quite melodic, at least fully formulated.

It may well be intended as two extended concert pieces, but the bulk of Iohargh Wended feels more like exercises in postnEddie Van Halen guitar techniques. There’s nothing wrong with that: Metal, avant or no, is about prowess and pyrotechnics. But the playing needs to go somewhere if it’s to be more than a jerk-off session. Barr accomplishes that resolution once out of 16 attempts here, belying the notion that he’s working in concert classical music. But perhaps that’s the whole point: recognizing that he’s wedged into a poor classification. It’s not so much that Barr can’t fit into this musical environment as that he refuses to.