Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy July 28, 2005
There’s a brief passage in the John Fahey story “The Center of Interest Will Not Hold” that always comes to mind when I think of the best way to describe the inviting and, in their finest moments, intoxicating methods of Minimalist composition.
It’s a description of Fahey seeing Hank Williams perform on the Potomac River excursion boat back in 1953 and it goes like this:
“And then he started playing, not singing, ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,’ a twelve-bar blues in E. And he played it and played it over and over again. For about ten minutes. Then he started singing. But when he did sing he only sang a few verses and then he came to an abrupt halt. It was so incredibly surprising and intense that it was frightening. After he stopped there was a silence for a long time. We were all hypnotized.”
I would not be surprised in the least to find out Mick Barr and Josh Blair, the respective guitarist and drummer of Orthrelm, knew the Fahey passage (taken from the must-own book How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) by heart. On the duo’s blistering, one-song epic OV, everything hinges on the way patterns and repetitions can lull a listener into submission and then pull the rug from beneath them, only to seduce them into another series of patterns and repetitions.
At first blush, the record — all 45 minutes of it — is a dense and impassable jungle of droning and clattering and rolling noise.
But repeated listens reveal alarming depths and a manner of composition that, like the pen-and-ink maze scribbled alongside the handwritten liner notes inside OV, is frighteningly complex in its simplicity.
The record isn’t so much a 45-minute composition as a series of performance segments with a massive, 17-minute introduction. During that lengthy but tightly scripted intro, the band does everything to dissuade the meek or unwilling or uninitiated from journeying further within, throwing seemingly endless loops of fingernails-on-chalkboards guitar shrieks over rumbling, kick-drum-crazed, warp-speed percussion.
No bass, no voice, no verse, no chorus, no escape — this is an atypical mass of thunderous rock adrenaline and Orthrelm wants to make sure you’re ready for the ride.
Around the 17:40-mark, it’s meltdown time, the drums abruptly peeling back for a machine-gun slash and burn over a single guitar string. The moment really lasts only a few seconds — a blink of the eye given the length of the entire recording — but it carries a momentum and a punch that shifts the force of the whole damned record, like a planet being thrown out of its numbing rotations around the sun.
The loops and clattering passages continue in a series of right-to-the-gut bursts and expansive drones but there’s a more organic pace to them, a sense that the musicians are in control of the noise (and not vice versa) and they’ve now completely trapped the listener in the proceedings.
At 19:45, the shrieking treble-heavy patterns are buttressed, on every fourth and then third note, by the crunch of a power chord that could force the Steve Albini of Shellac’s At Action Park to crack a smile.
Before we hit 22:00, there’s the repeated hit of an open note and then a full breakdown, a roll of almost-tribal tom hits interrupted sporadically by a hammered four-note Space Invaders measure.
At 23:05, everything erupts again and we’re back into the shrieking repetitions.
At 23:30, your wonder how the duo can hammer out the refrains without their fingers spontaneously bursting into flames.
By 24:30, the borderline furious and nearly frenetic 4/4 march speeds up to the point where it’s hard to tell if Barr — his guitar now almost echoing the avant-rock/metal tones of David Pajo’s on Tweez — is even plucking out notes with a guitar pick or just madly sliding his fingers all over the frets, whatever it takes to get that viscous delivery.
The record continues unfolding with these bizarrely dramatic moments and passages to its closing hurrah (the curtain drops with a bang, not a whimper, and is trailed only by about eight seconds of deathly silence) but the point of diagramming only a few of them illustrates their alarming impact.
This is a difficult record, no question about it, and even those open to structurally challenging rock/metal noise (a la Don Cab or much of the Ipecac catalog) might be turned off by the commitment one has to make before the band delivers the release to that epic practice of tension-building.
It would be unfair, ridiculous and even blasphemous to say Orthrelm is in a league with Fahey or the Hank Williams that Fahey envisions/recalls/constructs in “The Center of Interest Will Not Hold.”
But when it comes to that passage, they definitely get it. And your ears will be all the better for tuning in.
It’s hypnotism time.