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Universal Totem Orchestra - The Magus CD (album) cover


Universal Totem Orchestra



4.14 | 119 ratings

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4 stars A provocative, appealing epic

Even though I've written a few reviews here I still get intimidated at the thought of writing about albums under the Zeuhl tag, feeling generally inadequate in my knowledge. And despite my unease Universal Totem Orchestra (UTO) made the excursion from my usual musical digs effortless and enjoyable. This Black Widow Records release is truly an epic clocking in at 80 minutes, a double album in the vinyl days. The band describes their new work as "the new Opera of Universal Totem Orchestra. It's a jazz/rock symphonic composition which concludes a Trilogy (hidden Opera, Rituale Alieno, The Magus) dedicated to the Human Alienation; from the most esoteric state to the most psychal complex one, crossing extreme forms of analysis and autoanalysis." The band was formed in 1998 by Uto Golin and Dauno Buttiglione, the latter who left the group in 2005. Back are Ana Torres Fraile and Antonio Fedeli, and new members include Yanik Andreatta (bass), Fabrizio Mattuzzi (keys), and Danielle Valli (guitar.) Describing the UTO sound on this album is challenging but the bands that came to my mind while listening include Discus, Little Tragedies, Cafeine, Deus Ex Machina, NIL, and Lost World. Long explorations of a generally medium-heavy fusion are sifted with various keys/e-piano textures, and intricate, dynamic vocals parts and arrangements. Following are some specific impressions of the six long pieces.

"De Astrologia" (19:32) They waste no time getting ambitious opening with a nearly 20 minute piece of controlled tension. The opening section involves chanted vocal repetitions and repeating riffs before exploding into an occasion solo. Slowly it evolves into a dramatic call to arms musically, rolling and marching, almost evoking the visual of warriors marching across the plains to battle. Doubtful the band was aiming for this but since I do not understand Italian lyrics, I am left describing what the music alone "feels" like. The latter part maintains the heavy grooving bass undercurrent but the mood lightens some as the march breaks, the vocals become more free-spirited, and the piano becomes playful. Enter a laid-back horn solo to complete the shift with a reprise of the tension at the very end to complete the circle.

"Coerenza Della Percentuali" (17:30) Crazy-wild opening with a frantic and heavy 90s Crimson sound in the guitar. Blistering angular-rock splashing in occasional pools of quiet shimmering keyboards. In the middle, during the calming exchange between the male and female vocal, it becomes clear that Fraile is the secret weapon of the UTO. This woman is an exceptional vocal talent, utterly amazing. She is one of the best vocalists on today's stage and the band has the skills in arrangement to use her to maximum effect: soft and serene or heavy and powerful, chants, solos, duets with male or choir vocals, wordless, and formal operatic---she puts it all over the top. Again the track ends as it began with plucked strings (or simulated ones, not sure which).

"Les Plantes Magiques" (7:35) In one of the album's most beautiful moments the guitars and drums take a break. A gorgeous and contemplative rolling piano intro highlights the beautiful wordless vocals of Fraile. It is a peaceful respite from the modern, sounding warmer and traditional. But it doesn't last. After the halfway point you can feel the tension building again in the vocal and encroaching strings. Soon the drums are rolling ominous underneath but it never gets overly heavy, only dramatic, yet with delicate vocal interplay between solo female and choired male vocal. Very, very nice ending here.

"Ato Piradime" (15:50) The opening sounds almost Celtic-New Age with serene vocals over soft, spacious synths. But quickly it shifts to the edgy guitar riffs alternating mid-paced fusion with sax, keys, and guitar leads. Golin and Andreatta show some nice tight work here in the rhythm section and I like Mattuzzi's choice of key sounds in any particular moment, not always what you'd expect. The middle third of the track is a slower paced, almost soft dream-jazz with hypnotic vocals and sax, sad and somehow hopeful at once. At times it reminded me of Joni Mitchell's "Paprika Plains" from the Don Juan album. The final third of the track returns to a steady paced fusion with some adventurous shredding reminiscent of Indonesian avant-jazzsters Discus. A soaring, uplifting vocal with harmonizing electric lead finishes.

"Mors, Ultima Linea Rerum" (6:05) A quirky woodwinds opening shifts to laid-back trade-offs of sax and electric lead guitar. Later it moves to some ripping rock/fusion grooves battling a somewhat "droning" keyboard sound to good effect.

"Vento Madre" (13:23) The fourth long piece on the album covers little new ground but by this point you're either frustrated or completely fixated and deliriously happy. Notable again is the discipline and forcefulness of the guitar/bass/drums as they mercilessly dig in. Ana lays a repeating wordless vocal melody over the muscle and harmonizes nicely with the male vocals. It breaks 4 minutes in with e-piano leading to extended jamming over a literally galloping bass! The ending reprises the tight, driving beginning and then moves to a controlled, succinct ending. This track will benefit from a significant punch in your volume if you can manage it---turn it up!

Potential criticisms here involve the album's length which may be off-putting to casual fans and I admit at times I felt some trimming could have been used. On the contrary fans will be pleased that the band took full advantage of time to explore to their hearts content, but this question may determine how successful the work is to the individual. For me personally "The Magus" is not a masterpiece but deserving of the fourth star on the basis of the incredible work in making the vocal arrangements so interesting and so unique. Recommended to fans of unusual fusion packing surprises but appreciative of long-winded efforts. "The Magus" is a great achievement for something our bio describes as a "side project" and many full time bands should be so lucky as to deliver a work of this magnitude, despite my minor complaints. Black Widow offers it up in a handsome tri-fold digi-pak with a very nice lyric booklet containing full-color photos, though sadly, no English translations. Another title to add to the list for those guys who keep saying progressive music is dead. UTO begs to differ! 8/10

Finnforest | 4/5 |


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