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Zach Hill & Mick Barr - Shred Earthship

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Artist: Zach Hill & Mick Barr

Album: Shred Earthship

Label: 5 Rue Christine

Review date: May. 21, 2006

Virtuosity is a label that need be handled with care, but whether one chooses to heap such praise on Zach Hill and Mick Barr (of Hella and Orthrelm, respectively), it can’t be denied that each are technical giants. Hella and Orthrelm have been consistently linked in contemporary discussion of what can be termed maximalist music, rock-based composition with an emphasis on intricacy, speed and sweaty aerobic exercise. Both groups, however, have recently entered new phases in their trajectories. Hella’s Hill and Spencer Seim added two new members to their mix, crafting a double solo album that pushes the group’s music in a bevy of new directions and more fully exhibits the pop forms and technicolor dot-matrix psychedelics that were sometimes an understated part of their former work. Orthrelm moved towards a reinterpretation of their output, taking what was a million-mile journey with no two steps the same and extending it into a minimalist treatise on hypnotic repetition and the wonders of muscle memory. Each diversion in style was a welcome one; both bands seemed on the cusp of treading water, and their new discs marked successful steps for each, most notably in the case of Orthrelm, whose OV was their best release yet.

This paring of Hill and Barr, then, is a harkening back, a return to the elaborate sidewinders that these musicians are known for, with few frills and fewer moments to gather one’s breath. The compositions that make up Shred Earthship are some of the most convoluted to come from either man’s mind, and, per usual with their work, it dizzies the mind to imagine the hours that must go into the composition and mastery of such baroque material. Rapid-fire conversation is laid down in uneven, alien tongues, and despite the sheer amount of sound flowing from the duo at any given time, the tracks are fluid; even if their logic is incomprehensible, the music tends to make sense in some simple way. Repetition plays a part in Shred Earthship, not so much as on OV, for example, but the album’s best tracks tend to be the ones that hone in on a particular tone or phrase and extrapolate upon it. Unmitigated shredding makes up a fraction of the disc, but it’s the least riveting of the album’s components, and also the times at which Barr and Hill seem most prone to unhinged wankery.

With any music this intricate and difficult, scoffs will be heard deriding it as sheer mechanical performance or unemotional exercise. It’s true that Shred Earthship isn’t big on pathos, but, to mistake Hill and Barr as soulless performers of technical tasks sells the duo short. As much a showcase of prowess as the disc may be, the music breathes, and it has an effect on the listener, whether it acts as a shot of adrenaline or a physically draining test of concentration. The latter’s not necessarily a negative, though after an hour and 17 minutes’ worth of Hill and Barr’s onslaught, it’s understandable if many a listener’s been wearied by the experience. The mind is left dizzy by all it’s heard, unless, of course, it wanders, and Shred Earthship is not a disc best experienced in a casual or background manner. For this reason, a bit of brevity may have been a choice addition.

Barr and Hill would likely concur that Shred Earthship makes demands of its listeners, but good art usually does. It’s an album that speaks to a particular audience, not the sort of all-star collaboration that looks to cement new fans by broadening the scope of the performers’ output. But, to fans of Hella and Orthrelm, simply the mention of a Barr/Hill collaboration is enough to set off a Pavlovian salivation, and, with these listeners in mind, Shred Earthship does just what it should, combining the talents of two men who seem to have more fingers, wrists, and arms working at once than humanly possible, working in unison to create music that’s emphatically alive.

By Adam Strohm

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