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U Totem


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4 stars Excelente RIO (Rock In Oposition) band, following the likes of the British prog rockers Henry Cow. This is their first album and an impressive one at that, recomende for anyone interested in progressive rock at its best.
Report this review (#29118)
Posted Saturday, April 24, 2004 | Review Permalink
4 stars This album was my introduction to the US side of RIO. I am now a monster fan of other bands in this circle like Thinking Plague and Motor Totemist Guild. This album in particular was just different for some reason. I have not heard it in several months but I can say the ideas are very fresh even now. The synthetic approach with the modern day keyboards does not slow down the quality and drive of this music. Solid drumming from Dave Kerman AS USUAL. Kerman is the man when it comes to drums in RIO. Chris Cutler is the Sifu and Dave Kerman is the student... even though Kerman is pretty much on level ground with Cutler now. Anyway... this is an excellent record and it holds the mantle of RIO high in the sky! Great stuff!
Report this review (#29119)
Posted Wednesday, September 1, 2004 | Review Permalink
Sean Trane
Prog Folk
4 stars 4.5 stars really!!

First album what is often regarded as a "supergroup" (even if the notion if RIO is rather inept, because musicians in that realm cannot be considered as popular stars) and easily their better one. UT was obviously well entrenched in the now-solid American branch of RIO with Thinking Plague, Frith's New World adventures and 5UU etc. Printed on a luxurious paper but sober presentation (a typical Cuneiform product of those days), the booklet and artwork, the self-titled debut album is a bit of a condensed RIO/chamber prog résumé, presenting most of the more representative side of the movement.

Starting out like a madman out of his cage, the album is off to a completely wild and atonal (ala John Cage) intro of the 15-min One Nail Draws Another, before Emily's singing and James' guitar makes the track come back on traditional grounds (if you can talk of U Totem in terms of traditional), with many other influences interfacing and interlocking among which Henry Cow, Frank Zappa and Univers Zero (or Present to make the Kerman connection). This formation is incredibly tight and all musicians excel at their craft, but I'd like to point out Kerman's fantastic drumming and Johnsson's impressive wind instruments between Lindsey Cooper and Michel Berckmans, while Emily Hay's voice (and her flute parts) is simply dashing. But all is not perfect and Yellow Umbrella Gallery is a little too much nonsense for this writer, while the ingestion of the whole album (lasting over an hour) might prove a little arduous, because of some repetitions.

Exactly the type of album that confirmed that prog's supposed lean years in some departments were among the strongest in the Opposition, picking up the slack when Univers Zero was down for the count. This album is easily in my top 5 of that year and most likely in the top 20 of the decade. I will cite another reviewer here: "UT were what Henry Cow wanted to be!" Even if only for this album alone, that is not far removed from the truth, if you eclipse the fact that UT is fairly derivative of HC and UZ.

Report this review (#123309)
Posted Friday, May 25, 2007 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
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!

Report this review (#141222)
Posted Sunday, September 30, 2007 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
4 stars 4.5 stars. I admit I had a tough time with this one but perseverance has paid off. This band is a combination of the 5UU's and MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD. It's funny but now I don't understand what took me so long to appreciate this beautiful piece of work.

"One Nail Draw's Another" opens with various sounds with no real melody until after a minute. Drums, female vocals and sax provide that melody with piano joining in. Dissonant sounds before the song kicks in with about a minute of heaviness before various sounds come and go. Some cool vocal arrangements 5 1/2 minutes in, with lots of piano 3 minutes later. Those vocal arrangements are back 10 minutes in. I'm not a fan of the female vocals after 11 1/2 minutes as various sounds end it. "Two Looks At One End" opens with an uptempo melody with vocals that comes back later on. The rest is slower paced with different instrumental sounds coming and going. "Dance Of The Awkward" is an instrumental with piano, drums and flute leading the way. Horns late.

"Both Your Houses" features female vocals, vibraphone, percussion and horns. Someone is screaming and the male vocals sound so smooth. The drumming by Kerman is great later on. Mournful flute ends this my favourite song off of this album. Meaningful lyrics in this one as well. "Yellow Umbrella Gallery" has different people taking turns speaking as various instruments are played. "The Judas Goat" is a 10 minute track that opens with flute and horns. It kicks in before 1 1/2 minutes. Female vocals 3 minutes in with drums and piano. The song continues along without vocals until 7 1/2 minutes when they return with some strange sounds. A full sound follows becoming quite heavy. Nice. "Vagabonds Home" features many tempo changes with many sounds coming and going. Female vocals before 5 minutes. A solo flute melody 7 1/2 minutes in. The song starts to come to life 9 minutes in. Vibraphone, drums and the return of vocals create this life. A nice melody follows. Strange sounds to end it.

The playing is beyond incredible and I couldn't help but think of THINKING PLAGUE with the female vocals. A very special album.

Report this review (#148104)
Posted Monday, October 29, 2007 | Review Permalink
5 stars Fine symphonic avant-prog, and maybe my even most favourite album.

I usually don't care so much about the sound, but in this record it's truly satisfying (well, not so much in some parts), especially warm woodwind and the vocals. This band is also innovative and progressive and. much! Bright but doomy! Compact but sporadic!

One Nail Draws Another (1. / 14:58) starts quite dramatically and soon is HENRY COW coming into my mind. Songs like "Living In The Heart Of The Beast" and "Beautiful As The Moon - Terrible As An Army With Banners" (by HC) and "House Of Ash" (by THE RED MASQUE). This is epic dark avant-prog. Add some sudden noises, PRESENT (and other chamber rock) and orchestral classical music and polyphonic choir. And the melodies are very nice, carrying through those irrational parts.

Two Looks at One End (2. / 7:03) starts more upbeaten - cheerful psychedelic avant-pop. Even some circus elements, like it's common in avant-garde music - but not irritating or obvious in this case. Well, this is also like KING CRIMSON and RUNAWAY TOTEM's darker songs and the happier parts come suddenly between more ambient noise parts. Actually I don't like so much moment when there's pre-referring to Vagabonds Home (7.).

Dance of the Awkward (3. / 2:24) is playfully clumsy little instrumental, quite typical avant-prog, but I don't actually like it.

Both Your Houses (4. / 7:52) has quite mysterious and weird melody (and quite long - I've noticed it while humming it) that starts nicely powerfully. This kind of weird music I am and have been longing for. Later, there's powerful instrumentation and screaming, also softer parts. First the melody was like introducing me into a secret world, but now the world happened to be family hell (actually I don't listen the lyrics - this is what comes into my mind), and the starter melody turns to very emotional played after that.

Yellow Umbrella Gallery (5. / 5:10) has much some speaking voices and crowds, and a bit psychedelic and making me numb (also the length of the song), but I don't mind. This is not bad music and doesn't spoil the overall experience.

The Judas Goat (6. / 10:07). I'm not so keen on the sound (or some things in it) in those more rocking (but don't you dare to think it's rock) parts in the quite beginning and in the end. Anyway, the female vocals are great and dramatic and there's mellow dark song building here, reminding me of "Possessed" by THINKING PLAGUE. PS The song ends some psychedelia a bit similar to OZRIC TENTACLES.

Vagabonds Home (7. / 14:46). Like the first song, this is very good. Dynamic and catchy. Very great structures and this is just lovely. Sometimes reminds me of KENSO's songs that are also suitable for children's movies (maybe these are not so much background music but more like theme music). The ending is quite repetitive and long (but I like it and it fades away nicely) and actually these song structures are a bit weird, so there's no so much diversity in some scales.

All but third and fifth songs are very great. And you MUST get this if you're into avant-prog, but I recommend this very warmly for everyone who wants to see what prog can do.

It is a pity that there is very little music like this, if there even is.

Report this review (#204380)
Posted Thursday, February 26, 2009 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Over summer, I went a bit purchase crazy, especially with RIO/Avant groups. Among a pretty wide variety of groups I decided to check out was this one. The only member who I recognized from the group initially was Dave Kerman, drummer extraordinaire who has played with a ton of RIO/Avant groups over the years. I heard a live version of "One Nail Draws Another" on Youtube (thanks to James Grigsby for uploading it himself) and I was pretty instantly hooked. Nearly everything about that composition really grabbed me right away, and the real clincher was Emily Hay's vocals. From first listen, I essentially fell in love with her voice (and the track as a whole, and as it went on the album as a whole). The studio version of that track sounds even better, thanks to the extra vocals and tighter overall atmosphere (though they pull this stuff of pretty perfectly live as well). The track displays a TON of stylistic variation, and keeps moving throughout its 15-minute lifespan. The group certainly started off strong with this track, and it's undoubtedly my favorite on the album (and one of my favorite tracks from any album).

The rest of the album keeps up the intensity/creativity. Whether it's tracks like "Two Looks at One End" with its unusual, sometimes eerie use of taped material, the short and bizarre instrumental "Dance of the Awkward" or any of the other tracks, these musicians are displaying their chops/compositional abilities pretty heavily, not to mention the incredibly wide variety of influences they have. There are hints of just about everything in here from modern avant-classical to Indian classical music, to chamber music and (of course) rock and jazz, not to mention just about everything in between. The members of this group came partly from 5UU's and partly from Motor Totemist Guild, so they are sort of an early "supergroup" of the American RIO/Avant scene. I for one am very glad they came together, because this has become a favorite album of mine.

Definitely check this one out if you want a good example of what the American RIO sounds like, or if you're a fan of avant music in general. Give it some time to grow if it doesn't hit you instantly - some tracks weren't as instant of a success for me as the opener, but I love the entire album now. I consider this album a masterpiece.

Report this review (#308923)
Posted Monday, November 8, 2010 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#376891)
Posted Sunday, January 9, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars RIO-flavoured supergroup U Totem present a debut album which is rich in intriguing and eccentric musical diversions. You tend not to think of RIO as a subgenre in which there are many supergroups, but arguably what U Totem are doing here is analogous to the blending of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow that ultimately yielded projects like Art Bears and News From Babel. Boldly kicking off with the alarming One Nail Draws Another - a truly bizarre epic but also a curiously accessible entry point to U Totem's world - the album rattles through its 62 minutes with a minimum of filler and deserves to be investigated by any fan of avant-garde prog.
Report this review (#1039715)
Posted Thursday, September 19, 2013 | Review Permalink

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