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U Totem - U Totem CD (album) cover


U Totem



4.24 | 93 ratings

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5 stars a true fusion of 20th century classical with rock

(This review is written by Ann Arbor, and published in Amazon, in 2001. I've edited it just a bit to reflect more my opinions, but the differences are very minoric)

The album opens with a loud crash--a piano cluster accompanied by a drum hit. Pause. Two more crashes. Pause. Woodwinds and electronics start appearing through yet more crashes. Chromatic, Ligeti-like figurations appear. What's that-- tonality? Actually, yes, because U Totem's opening track, 'One Nail Draws Another' is practically a survey of the last five hundred years of Western music. 20th-century classical music is by far the biggest influence, of course, but there's also hard rock, a dash of prog, a bit of pseudo-Indian sitar music, quotes from 15th-century religious music, and even Broadway (singer Emily Hay sounds a little like a gentler Dagmar Krause, but a lot more like the Fibonaccis' Magie Song, so her voice has a very theatrical quality to it). Amazingly, composer James Grigsby manages to unify these disparate styles into a cohesive, complex, catchy and absolutely beautiful piece of music.

A word of explanation: U Totem is a colaboration between the 5uu's, led by Dave Kerman, and the Motor Totemist Guild, led by James Grigsby. The two take turns writing tracks for the album, so that the odd-numbered tracks are by Grigsby and the even-numbered tracks are by Kerman. (in fact the credit for Kerman's tracks goes also for some other band member's help - Sh). For those of you familiar with the 5uu's, Kerman's music here is pretty much business as usual, although more extended, less Yes-sounding (possibly due to the absence of Yes-head Bob Drake) and with a more classical sound due to the woodwinds. You get such typical Kermanisms as atonal rock-outs ('The Judas Goat'), vaguely equine-sounding electronic noises ('Two Looks at One End'), and long passages based on the careful, almost minimalistic manipulation of short motivic cells ('Both Your Houses'). However, there are also some real shocks, such as a truly bizarre passage in 'Both Your Houses' in which ex-UU Curt Wilson sings a lush, refined melody while Emily Hay shrieks uncontrollably far in the background.

Good though Kerman's music may be here, the album is really stolen by Grigsby. I've already mentioned the 15-minute opener 'One Nail Draws Another', and almost as impressive is the equally long 'Vagabonds Home', whose apparent aimlessness resolves after a few listens into a beautiful motivically-integrated piece whose flirtations with tonality are made all the more powerful by the way they fade back into the atonal language that is the norm on this album. The brief 'Dance of the Awkward' sounds pretty much like what you might expect, and 'Yellow Umbrella Gallery' is a setting of texts in multiple languages about "pretentious, highfalutin' ideas about what's artistic" sampled, Negativland-like, over a shimmering and unsettling groove laid out by the rock instruments and built on by the classical ones. So, 4 stars for Kerman, 5 for Grigsby, and 4.5 for the overall whole.

A bit of buying advice: If you're coming from a rock/prog direction and curious about the "new RIO" bands, I'd advise you to check out Thinking Plague and the 5uu's first--those bands are really rock with a strong modern-classical influence, whereas this seems more like modern classical music with a strong rock influence. If you're already a fan of those bands and want more of a challenge, you should definitely check this out--it requires more listens and more careful attention, but it grows on you with each listen. (It's still growing on me, in fact.) And if you like 20th-century classical music, you owe it to yourself to listen to this avant-rock masterpiece.

This is Ann's review. Few words from me: the cooperation between Grigsby and Kerman is phenomenal, the execution and musicianship is excellent, and particulary I'd like to mention the very well flute playing from Emily Hay, and the excellent basson playing from Eric Johnson. And of course Emily's singing but I didn't say something new here. My favourite is 'Vagabonds Home' by Grigsby, and close to that is 'The Judas Goat' by Kerman and Kumar. My rating is 4.5 stars, as well as the entire review, but I'm not sure that for the same reasons. Anyway I'll put it on 5 stars here, this is an essential listening for all RIO enthusiasts wherever they are, me included of course.

ShW1 | 5/5 |


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