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U Totem - U Totem CD (album) cover


U Totem



4.23 | 96 ratings

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5 stars A Revelation.

Ever had one of those?

I had a few during my life; most occurred during dark, depressing or desperate times; others happened while listening to specific albums.

One such album was this one.

This revelation consists of the understanding that imagination and daring to explore are one of the great human traits; Understanding that music, at its most beautiful, whether complex or simple, can be a healer, a comforting friend, a motivator; Understanding that music can be a reason to live for, a purpose in life, a cause to get up in the morning and keep on living despite hardship.

Musicians from 5UU's and Motor Totemist Guild came together to create this masterpiece of an album and joined by other session musicians to complete the sound. I am having hard time expressing just how wonderful and special I find this album to be. It is one of those albums I feel a sort of catharsis while listening to it and want to start it over again when it ends. However, I feel un-equipped and not knowledgeable enough to write about this, but since I love this album so much, I'll give it a try and please forgive any mistake or nonsense I might write.

Instrumentation - Abundant and varied instrumentation makes this album a delight to listen to; so rich and smooth is the sound, along with Emily Hay's vocals. Saxophones, flute, piccolo, bassoon, contrabassoon, sitar, piano, vibraphone, guitar, bass, drums, percussion and the use of tape recordings - all those play the music, making it lively and special. Not only the type of music, the influences on composition, but the type of instruments are a look back at their influences which are I would guess 20 century composers (I am not an expert on this at all, but having read about and listened to some I would assume this is the case; Stravinsky would probably be one) and previous chamber rock groups.

The music has been said to be a mélange of 20th century classical music, avant-garde, rock, chamber music all mixed to an end result that is the special sound of U Totem. Well, yes but how to translate the greatness of this album into words? Complex, very well played, sophisticated and compelling, the music never ceases to amaze me. Just listen to "Both Your Houses" and how all the instruments combine together while the rhythm goes on. Not only shown by the complexity, the progressiveness of the music is shown also in how they ornament the songs with the instruments; in the intervals which are filled with the occasional "odd" sounds, atonal parts or "experiments"; they drift away with each song from the main theme to explore the grounds. Each song is cleverly orchestrated, maneuvered through the gushing waters, from one part where the classical instruments lead the way, into other parts, where the more "modern" rock instruments take over. With all this going about, the beauty is kept, the connecting musical thread is always there and the magic is never lost. The repetitive part in "Both Your Houses" around the fourth minute (before and after Emily screams her heart out in the background) is a fantastic example of how to play the same theme and make it sound great by changing the instruments and using whatever comes to mind (and using slightly different scales to create a seeming disharmony). Brilliant!

Take for instance "One Nail Draws Another" with its almost 15 minutes. It goes through so many different parts, uses so many elements of their influences, and yet there is not one boring moment, there is continuous movement, and constant progression while going back to visit the same themes as the song goes. Emily's vocals and the male opera-like vocals joining in the middle add to the richness already found in this song.

"Two Looks At One End" and Yellow Umbrella Gallery show their more modern influences, their avant-garde and quirky side (as if it wasn't enough as it is) and their use of the tape recordings and manipulation of the keyboards. Engaging and dynamic, weird and sometimes disharmonic, these pieces are enriched with the seemingly random use of the recorded sounds and voices and Emily's vocals (on that first track of the two).

Another thing to praise here is that each song is easily identifiable and different than the others. I don't sense a repetitiveness and yet the collection of songs and tracks fit very well together; each song brings its own approach (however slightly or not-so- slightly different than the others), making this collection of 7 songs feel as a whole - meaning, this feels like an album, and not like a collection put together.

This album might lead you to the US side of avant-rock/chamber-rock, if you haven't "visited" these realms already. Both the "donating" bands to U Totem are obvious bands to explore (although I much prefer this group or project), as well as Thinking Plague, whose In Extremis I think draws somewhat of an influence from this album.

To sum up, this is one of my all-time favourites. An album as rich in sound as it is special, complex, intriguing, thrilling, stimulating, exciting and whatever other adjectives you may want to add to it. Their sound mingling together music by 20th century composers, chamber rock and avant-garde is one that I treasure, and find beautiful, compelling. It was a revelation the first time I heard it; being struck by the combination of complexity, oddity and beauty, realizing how fantastic music can be when musicians take it to a ride through their wild imaginations and perform for us their vision.

Honestly, my words cannot do justice enough to this fabulous album and these fine musicians and composers. Reading this, I feel I have failed to pass on what goes through my mind when listening to this and more importantly what the music actually sounds like and how great it is. So I'll simply say that if you are a follower of this type of music, this is a must have album. If you are interested in checking this type of music, but don't yet feel comfortable enough in it or are new entirely, I would start elsewhere, and save this to later on when you can appreciate it fully and without trying to adjust to this type of music. It might take the pleasure of the album. But this is a mandatory stop station in your excursions throughout the avant-rock/chamber-rock (or whatever you want to call it) realm.

A must have!

avestin | 5/5 |


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