How Mick Barr Became an Unlikely Guitar God (and Composer)

Musical TheaterMusic IndustryArts and CultureArtNew Haven (New Haven, Connecticut)Yngwie MalmsteenAnimal Collective (music group)

"It's a return to your New Haven roots," I say.

"I never left my roots!" Mick Barr insists, mock-indignant, by phone from Weehawken, N.J. And it's true, maybe, that you can take the boy out of the Connecticut scene, but —

Eh. Whether it's a return, a reconnection, or just a renewal, superpowered guitarist Barr is showing copious love to the scene he grew up in with a pair of forthcoming local releases. Rick Omonte — the impresario behind, among other things, the once-great "Sundazed at BAR" concerts — is publishing selections from Barr's music and visual art in the next Ephemeroptera Quarterly, a multimedia zine/compilation record, and Carlos Wells' equally discriminating Safety Meeting Records is putting out Coiled Malescence, Derby-born Barr's first vinyl LP to be released under his own name.

If that name is unfamiliar to you, you might not have heard of his wild array of past and present projects, either, ranging from Ocrilim (Barr solo), to guitar/drum duos Orthrelm (with Josh Blair) and Crom-Tech (with Malcolm McDuffie), to yet more collaborative efforts like Krallice, the quartet that every blogger seems to be calling a "black metal supergroup," and which released one of the most acclaimed metal records of 2011.

And it doesn't stop. Barr has a new thrash duo, Oldest, with drummer Brooks Headley. Orthrelm may return to the studio. Krallice just released an online covers EP in memory of Orphan bassist Brendan Majewski, has started writing new material, and should be touring again in the fall.

He's lived and made music across the country, from San Francisco to D.C., but now that he's back within spitting distance of Connecticut, New Haven will probably be hearing a lot more from him.

These New Haven–based releases have sprouted, unsurprisingly, from friendships formed in Barr's youth here. "I met Carlos a while ago," Barr explains, "through friends that I grew up with in New Haven, and he just kind of asked if I wanted to do something. And a few years later, I had this record that I liked, and I thought that would be a good home for it. I've actually got a bunch of old friends that are on that label" — such as Omonte, of Crooked Hook and Mountain Movers, and Matt Thomas, of M.T. Bearington and the Weigh Down.

As for the Ephemeroptera connection, "That just came about through email. I've known Rick since he played in [90s ska band] Spring Heeled Jack — I feel like Thinner played one or two shows with them back in the day." Thinner was Barr's band with Thomas. "And I played a bunch of shows for Sundazed at BAR."

Thinner's discography is a bit difficult to track down, but Barr's enduring cult has ensured that many of his subsequent records, including Crom-Tech's hyperspeed thrash, remain in circulation amongst connoisseurs of heavy music.

Barr is, if nothing else, a musician's musician, with a starry following. His recent projects have come out through boutique labels like Mike Patton's Ipecac and John Zorn's Tzadik; Animal Collective picked him for this spring's All Tomorrow's Parties festival.

Lately, he's been getting props from a somewhat unlikelier quarter, as classical music wonks begin to notice his music's complex and thoughtful construction. When NPR asked its listeners for a list of the world's top 100 composers under 40, Barr made the cut; Jefferson Friedman, an awesomely gifted, Juilliard-trained composer, arranged eight Crom-Tech songs with saxophone filling in for Barr's demented leads. In 2009, he was one of two composers to receive a $25,000 grant from the Foundation for Contemporary arts — legendary electric-guitar symphonist Glenn Branca was the other.

Barr, a slight, affable guy, seems to welcome his improbable new status as a classical composer. He's already written a string quartet, and has recently taught himself to set down his labyrinthine musics using conventional Western notation. The appeal of composerdom, for Barr, seems to lie largely in his weariness with the rock-'n'-roll lifestyle. Simply put, composers make money by writing music; rock musicians make money by selling t-shirts.

"I don't want to come off as bitter," he protests, "because I'm not bitter." (He doesn't, for the record, sound bitter. He sounds grown up.) "I do what I want to do, and that's a kind of success."

The word "classical" doesn't describe his music any better than "rock" (where are the songs, man?) or "jazz" (he doesn't improvise), but his recent work bears a strong technical resemblance to early Philip Glass scores, put together using additive processes — tiny melodic fragments are broken down into still tinier components, which are then built up again into something else entirely.

But what it actually sounds like is gibbering musical insanity, like a half-dozen metal riffs spinning and shredding in a blender. Barr chokes way, way up the neck of his guitar, and attacks it at literally injurious speeds. (You just can't play as fast as he does without courting some kind of repetitive stress malady.)

Barr discovered his style when, coming of age in a Connecticut saturated with hardcore — "Pretty much the main styles of music that were happening when I grew up were hardcore and ska" — he felt unsuited to the straightforwardness of hardcore songwriting. "So in the bands that I was playing in," he says, "I would try to write riffs to annoy the other members of the band, just because I wanted to fuck with them, and it started there."

As for his playing's signature, ear-piercing treble register, "I always had a really crappy amp — I had a horrible tone to work with—so I tried to play up high so that that would cut through the other instruments, whereas if I played low, just, like, power chord rock, it would be kind of lost in the fuzz of it all."

But Barr's virtuosity would be wasted if he didn't have collaborators who could keep up, like Marston, Nick McMaster, and Lev Weinstein of Krallice. At their recent Milford gig, the talent was almost as stunning as the volume, and when I start raving about Weinstein's astonishingly fast, but highly musical drumming, Barr is quick to join in.

"I love getting to play with Lev…. He's got a lot of ideas — let's say we play a riff four times… He knows how to accent and how to build it so that it's not just the same riff four times."

Part of Barr's attraction to the metal scene is the high level of playing, and the high level of musical thinking — "it seems like the musicality is always getting better and always pushing the envelope."

He concedes, "I definitely know a few bands that play pretty fast and on-point but don't really — aren't able to write anything that's all that interesting to me. For me personally, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, that's just about how well you can play. I just fucking despise that shit, you know? But a whole slew of people, that's what they value, and that's what they look for, whereas [to me], how somebody plays is less important than what they're playing."

What's amazing about Coiled Malescence is how much it does have to say. There's the sheer quantity of musical information Barr's virtuosity puts forward, and the advanced formal ideas, but then there's also a range of extremely subtle acoustic effects created by Barr's relentless, machinelike repetitions. And maybe most surpassingly, upon close scrutiny, his telegraphic riffs decipher themselves as a language of feeling.

It's not easy to make a career out of music this dense. But "I feel like I've been incredibly lucky," Barr says. "I know a lot of people who play music and put a lot into it and are still struggling. They're still at the level where they're still starting out."

He pauses.

"I'm still starting out, in a lot of ways."

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