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U Totem - Strange Attractors CD (album) cover


U Totem



3.99 | 31 ratings

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5 stars The lamb lies down on RIO

That was my impression after my first listening to this album. A Rock Opera, but a RIO one, which not deterred from using 20th century classical music elements, free tonality, unusual scales, a bit of minimalism and loop motifs, odd jazz passages, operatic/Cabaret singing, rhythm tricks and other characteristics of the avant/RIO music.

Later on, it begun to sound weird even to my ears. I can't point out exactly on the causes for this weirdness, maybe it's just too weird to explain! But after that I've made an effort and read the Novella that the music is related too, and finally it begun to click. And now I'm a great enthusiast, totally hooked and highly addicted.

The story jumps forward and backward in times and places. (Los Angeles, Tokyo, Taife are some locations). It's quite 'actioned', and holds light-crime, heavy crime, prostitution and some future technologies, while the future time is dated to 2012. It reminded me of the 'Pulp fiction' movie that apparently so the light AFTER the story has been written (also by James Grigsby, the composer). The track order in the album is not the same as the related episode order in the novella, so it's a time mixture upon time mixture, considering that the story itself does not developed in a chronological order. While I can't guarantee for the story quality, I can easily do so for the music.

James Grigsby mentioned, in a very interesting interview right here on PA, that he used many approaches to write the music for this script. One approach is text-singing. I mean, the DIRECT text taken straight from the Novella (that attached to the CD). It sounds different from lyrics that based on a song structure (even a complicated one, such as 'One nail draws another' from the previous U Totem album). It is highly recommended to listen to tracks such as 'Ginger tea' and 'Karucha shokku' that using this technics, while reading the text. The treatment would be totally different, and much dipper. Other approach that Grigsby mentioned is a musical theme per character, in the 'agent White fox' track (I didn't manage to find other examples of this approach). An instrumental Celtic tune with non-traditional rhythm shifts, along with funk/jazz sections. Emily Hay playing on piccolo in this track and it sounds remarkable. Join in are snare rolls, guitar and keyboards (unisoned with the piccolo), bass and some brass.

Other fascinating approach is represented in 'January sky'. James Grigsby himself read this chapter in a monotonous voice, accompanied with primitive, non-harmonic lines played on synthesizer, and constant drum hits strengthened with zurna and piano clusters. It might recall for Japanese theatre. Later on this Far East culture is confronted with a Christian religious chant, which suits so well to the related episode. This short piece ended by a baby cry (performed very realistically by Nigel Wilson, probably the infant-at-the-time son of Curt Wilson, engineer and vocalist).

The sound of this album is different from the sound of the U Totem previous s/t album, and it requires some time to get accustomed to. Instead of an acoustic-chamber ensemble, we get here much harder, harshness feeling, but not necessarily in a 'rock' way. It's not only due to the addition of a relatively more dominant electric guitar, played wisely by Steve Cade. Many rolls are 'loaded upon the shoulders' of keyboardist Sanjay Kumar. Emily Hay on flute and piccolo, and Eric Johnson on bassoon, are still there, but not as dominant as in the previous album. Kumar is a fantastic keyboardist, but still the keyboards sounds are dated to the 90's, and the modest production does not make it much different. There are some parts, especially on the 'movie screenplay' approach tracks (such as 'Chen gate' and 'Redskin') that scream for a real orchestra. I'm aware that this willingness of mine is not anchored in any realism at all, RIO efforts do not enjoy from huge budgets, (on the contrary), but nevertheless an orchestrated sound at some tracks would be very satisfying.

Members and instruments worth mentioning include band members and some guests. Emily Hay on vocals just elevates upon herself by singing, acting and providing nuances to the various rolls, characters, and moods. In addition, Kaori Kuboniwa sings in beautiful, sweet vocals, mainly the Japanese words. ('Karucha shokku' and 'Postcards'). There are some interesting percussion rolls, played by bongos (or alike) and cymbals, and some far-eastern sounds like gongs, and vibraphones/xylophones. A lot of computer effects and tapes are also brought into the table.

In all, one of the finest works from James Grigsby and his crew (I don't care much if It's called 'U Totem', 'Motor totemist guild' or whatever). The music is very dynamic and very diverse. The interplays between the various instruments are magnificent, and there is always something new to discover. Although the evident complexity, still there is a kind of catchiness and communicativeness that being kept throughout. In my first listenings, I've imagined it would end up as a 4 stars album, but meanwhile, the music had grown on me, and surpass the 4 stars scope. So the rating from me will be a well-deserved 5 stars. James Grigsby is one of the very few 'RIO giants' out there, and the crew is talented as hell. There are very few works in a similar quality in the RIO/progressive IMO, and the music is that good.

ShW1 | 5/5 |


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