Clear Chaos

Zach Hill and Mick Barr break the prog barrier

Of course the new disc from guitarist Mick Barr of Orthrelm and drummer Zach Hill of Hella — the poster boys for a music that was once tagged “brutal prog” — is generating a serious buzz from us music writers. We're all taking turns describing the NorCal duo's Shred Earthship disc as the product of two virtuosos of experimental metal finally coming together. And while there's no denying the technical mastery of both Hill and Barr, who've packed this 1.2-hour collection of jammers with more chops than a dojo, to get all Berklee College of Music about this subject — as if these dudes are nothing more than the indie counterparts to ace progressive metalheads Tony MacAlpine and Tim “Herb” Alexander — is to criminally overlook the evolved sense of collective consciousness exuded from this complex, dense, challenging music.

Bay Area drummer and composer Weasel Walter once described Barr's axmanship as a “fractal-like inner logic that is both chaotically asymmetrical and perfectly ordered at once.” This is a dramatic critique because Western minds traditionally view order 'n' chaos as an either/or proposition, but Walter is right. After cranking Shred Earthship for several hours, I have no idea whether Barr and Hill are manic, free jazz-inspired improvisers or the world's most detail-oriented progressive composers, as their screaming duets — microscopic clusters, explosions, and violently sputtering orgasms full of hyper-pinprick note play and rapid-fire grooves — feel both fluid and crystalline. And regardless of a track's duration, which varies here from 20-second, Napalm Death-type blasts to nine-minute epics, I'm always left with this same damn remarkable impression. The probing abstract metal from this tenacious pair has proven that a minuscule number of minds in our 21st-century society have definitely advanced beyond such a juvenile dichotomy as form or formlessness.

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