Played without preface at any social gathering, Orthrelm's OV will provoke panic attacks. Some of the terror comes from the music's approximation of distress signals: Riffs blare and undulate like sirens, while other guitar notes hover at an urgent pitch like emergency broadcast transmissions. Also, this 45-minute, one-track album can induce claustrophobia. It generates power from relentless repetition, which can leave the unwittingly exposed feeling hopeless and horrified.
However, for properly prepared listeners, OV can be compelling. It's a high-volume Frankenstein's monster of mutilated death-metal fragments, but OV's real strength is subtlety, the way its ghostly slivers of melody, drum-and-guitar call-and-response interactions and dense spiral patterns seem to play a little differently each time.
On Orthrelm's previous records, guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Josh Blair consciously avoided chords and backbeats, making every two-minute tune unfathomably complex, mosaics comprising infinitely smaller mosaics under a microscope. For OV, Barr and Blair started trading double-bass percussive patterns and quick-picked guitar retorts, with Moroccan trance music as an overriding inspiration.
Orthrelm started playing OV in its entirety two years before releasing the album, and many audience members thought it was an improvised number. It's an assumption that greets most challenging instrumental music, from noise compositions to jazz, and Barr says he's not offended when spectators think he's navigating without a map.
"I understand that," he says. "It takes awhile to be able to hear it."
Barr and Blair play just as fast as many spastic headbanging shredders, but because they don't sell the presentation, their virtuosity doesn't look as impressive.
"I'm not a showman," Barr says. "There's no wasted energy. Adding as little movement as possible makes it easier to get through the set. It's physically draining, but almost invigorating, in a weird way."
Orthrelm doesn't have a web presence, which means its only fan interaction comes during tours. Given that the group has been off the road for two years, Barr isn't sure what to expect in terms of turnout.
"I don't know anyone other than my personal friends that really likes it," he says.
He can add the Plug Awards panel to that list. The group nominated OV for Avant Album of the Year, a category it shares with Animal Collective, Black Dice and the Boredoms, among others.
"I don't have a prayer that we'll win, but it's awesome to be up there with those bands," Barr says.
While he's "psyched" about the Plug nod, Barr says his favorite feedback comes from concertgoers, some of whom nominated Orthrelm for a very different distinction.
"After we played in Cleveland, someone shouted, 'Worst show ever,'" Barr recalls. "The best was when someone yelled, 'Get a life.' It was funny, and kinda true."
with Yip-Yip, Band of the Name
8 pm Sunday, Feb. 12