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Challenge your ears with Orthrelm

Kristi Kates - March 9th, 2006
Orthrelm is what music aficionados would call “a challenging listen.”
Blending near over-th-top metal sensibilities with churning, shredding
guitar lines, underground prog-rock wiht a hint of jazz and technically
baffling drum patterns, Orthrelm - made up of the Washington, D.C. duo
of Josh Blair on drums and Mick Barr on guitar - is both confusing and
mesmerizing audiences across the country.
There’s not a lot of flash to Orthrelm - what impresses is the music,
not the stage setup or costumes.  But that very quality adds to
their appeal, especially when you realize that the two men on
stage are remarkably skilled musicians who devote an equally remarkable
amount of time to getting their compositions exactly right, whether
it’s as a series of one-to-two minute songs that entirely avoid
repetition of any kind, or as the one long track of their current
album, OV, a listen that spans 45 minutes straight and dabbles in
genres from the aforementioned metal to Middle Eastern influences. 
If you’re tired of pop, soured on rock, or bored of the usual metal,
Orthrelm will definitely be a new experience for your ears. 
Blair and Barr started playing music in high school, experimenting with
different sounds.  “Neither of us have been in too many straight-ahead
bands,” Blair thinks back.  Even now, when they’re not working with
Orthrelm, they both frequently veer off to participate in a wide
variety of other musical ventures - Barr plays with Crom-Tech, Octis,
and QuixOTic, and Blair, who has also worked with ABCS and WWIII, cites
his current “other” band, Supersystem, as more than a side project. “It
takes up far too much time to be a side project,” he laughs. “Let’s
call it the other half of my musical existence.” 
But for now, at least, it’s Orthrelm that’s drawing the most
attention.   Different, abrasive, detailed, impressive, and
uncategorizable, Orthrelm is making their own way, defiant of genres
and slowly finding a core audience. 
“It’s hard to define music,” Blair ponders, “especially now.  I feel
like everyone listens to everything now - it’s so easy to just go
online and download a little of this, a little of that.  It seems like
everyone’s heard everything, and, as a result, genres are really
When Blair and Barr began working as Orthrelm, they had, as Blair puts
it, “short attention spans,” so most of their songs were extremely
short indeed - written, over, and done before there was time for either
musician to get bored. 
“Those short songs were just kind of where our heads were at when we
were making those first records,” Blair explains “They were sort of
roller coaster rides, where you’d get in and things would roll through
and fall back on top of themselves.  The first couple of albums were
stuff that Mick had written, and I’d write drum parts over what he
did.  Later on, our records became more and more collaborative.  The
current album grew more on its own, and actually had more room to
Which explains, perhaps, why Orthrelm has embarked on a national tour.
They’re in the middle of a fairly extensive tour schedule, with their
people sending these two eclectically reckless musicians out to play in
front of crowds that, so far, are either loving ‘em or hating
‘em. They’re definitely experiencing some growing pains, but they’re
approaching it all with a good attitude. 
“This tour is our first since OV came out,” Blair says, “so it’s really
an older album to us, but it’s the bulk of our live set on this tour. 
We also throw in a few new things, but it’s mostly stuff from OV.  It’s
been so long since we’ve been out on the road - and we’re playing
mostly bars and smaller venues - so I’m really kind of shocked at how
many people are excited that we’re out - that’s really nice.”
Blair is also probably a little shocked at how some of the bar
audiences are reacting to their music, which obviously doesn’t fall
into the usual category of “fun music to listen to while you’re
drinking.”  But it’s all just par for the course. 
“Well, to reach the smaller towns, sometimes the only option you have
is to play a bar,” Blair points out. “It’s kind of difficult at times -
in addition to the giant cloud of cigarette smoke at bars, it’s harder
for us to play our music, because you’re kind of being forced into this
role of Beer Soundtrack or Beer Salesman.  And people often just aren’t
into what we do.  There have been several shows where people were
yelling at us and throwing ashtrays and things, but while I do fear for
my safety at times,” he chuckles, “not everyone spends a lot of time
seeking out new music or wanting to be challenged by it.  So I do
understand their confusion.”
Hopefully, interest in Orthrelm will continue to rise, so that the duo
can be packaged into more welcoming venues.  But it’s not all bad. 
“Nah, we’re okay,” Blair confirms “It’s actually nice to switch up our
surroundings. We really do like playing for people who are interested
in what we do.  And we’ve played with a lot of interesting local bands,
as well - sometimes we get stuck on indie-rock bills that we don’t
really fit into, but overall, we’ve been pleased with who we’ve been
getting paired up with for shows.  It’s inspiring to me to see the
other musicians that are out there doing their thing.  We’ve been
enjoying visiting all the different cities.  Now if it just wasn’t so
cold in the Midwest!” he laughs. 
They’re nearing the end of their current schedule, and they’ll be
appearing on March 11 at the Inside Out Gallery in Traverse City, a
winter-chilled but art-friendly town that, nonetheless, is full of
musicians and others who will surely be intrigued by what Orthrelm has
to offer. 
Named by Pitchfork Media as one of the Top 50 Records of 2005, and
recently nominated for a Plug Award for Best Avant Garde Album, they’ve
got a good foundation going, and they’ll be staying on the road through
March 19 in order to draw more listeners into the Orthrelm camp.  And
then it’s back to the drawing board to make more of this music
that challenges the listener and asks for receptive - and respectful
- ears. 
“After the tour, we’ll be working on some new stuff that we hope to
record this spring and put out later this year,” Blair says. “It takes
us a long time to write and record.  Sometimes we distill things down
to nothing, sometimes we come back around and change things.  We’re
also working on a lot of things individually, and that’s exciting too -
then we’ll get together and see what sticks.”
See Orthelm at the Inside Out Gallery this Saturday, March 11, 229
Garland Street in the downtown TC Warehouse District.

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