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U Totem


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U Totem U Totem album cover
4.24 | 100 ratings | 10 reviews | 38% 5 stars

Excellent addition to any
prog rock music collection

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Studio Album, released in 1990

Songs / Tracks Listing

1. One Nail Draws Another (14:54)
2. Two Looks at One End (6:57)
3. Dance of the Awkward (2:18)
4. Both Your Houses (7:49)
5. Yellow Umbrella Gallery (5:04)
6. The Judas Goat (10:01)
7. Vagabonds Home (14:46)

Total Time: 62:23

Line-up / Musicians

- Emily Hay / voice, flute, piccolo
- Sanjay Kumar / piano, keyboards, sitar
- Eric Johnson / bassoon, contrabassoon, soprano sax
- James Grigsby / bass, guitar, vibraphone, tapes
- David Kerman / drums, percussion, tapes

- Kaoru Mansour / voice (1)
- Howard Shepard / voice (1)
- Maria Moran / guitar (1)
- Becky Heninger / cello (1)
- Herbert Diamant / soprano sax (2)
- Curt Wilson / voice (4)
- Greg Conway / guitar (4)
- Georgia Grigsby / voice (5)
- Rod Poole / guitar (5)
- Dave Lizmi / guitar (6)
- Miriam Meyer / violin (7)

Releases information

Artwork: David Grigsby

CD Cuneiform Records ‎- Rune 24 (1990, US)

Digital album

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U TOTEM U Totem ratings distribution

(100 ratings)
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music(38%)
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection(38%)
Good, but non-essential (17%)
Collectors/fans only (4%)
Poor. Only for completionists (3%)

U TOTEM U Totem reviews

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Collaborators/Experts Reviews

Review by Sean Trane
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.

Review by avestin
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR 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!

Review by 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.

Review by SaltyJon
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR 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.

Review by Warthur
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.
Review by siLLy puPPy
4 stars One of avant-prog's second wave supergroups, U TOTEM existed for a five year period from 1989-1994 and released only two albums but made prog history for its uncompromising ability to navigate centuries worth of musical styles in their short stint together. Primarily the merging of members from the L.A. based band 5uu's and the San Francisco based Motor Totemist Guild, the band featured Dave Kerman (drums, percussion) and Sanjay Kumar (keyboards, piano, sitar) of the former and James Grigsby (guitars, bass) and Emily Hay (flute, piccolo, vocals) of the latter. The band also had connections with Thinking Plague which Kerman joined the same year U TOTEM was born. Also on board was Eric Johnson (bassoon, soprano sax) and Steve Cade (guitar). Numerous guests appeared providing a number of extra instrumentation and vocals.

U TOTEM was very much influenced by the most daring Rock In Opposition / avant-prog acts that preceded such as Henry Cow, Art Bears, Cassiber as well as the American avant-proggers such as Thinking Plague and of course the bands which spawned U TOTEM in the first place. One of the artier examples of avant-prog, this self-titled debut emerged in 1990 and was in many ways one of the early examples of the prog revival that was coming out of the shadows and joining the world of neo-prog that had kept the genre alive in the 80s in terms of popularity. To call this album ambitious would truly be understatement. U TOTEM's debut was as much modern classical music as anything in the avant-rock universe. The flutes and bassoon offer a Medieval feel while the heady angular workouts point to the chamber rock bands and avant-proggers generated from the Henry Cow family.

The album opens and closes with two near 15-minute monstrosities with five tracks of varying time lengths in between. At a running time of over 62 minutes plus, U TOTEM's debut is a lot to take in and virtually impossible to wrap one's head around with a single exposure. This is one of those albums i can put away for a while and then completely forget what it sounds like. It's the gift that keeps on giving! The opening "One Nail Draws Another" doesn't waste any time getting into the complex chamber rock business of crafting super knotty piano workouts with intricate classical instrumentation and crazy wind instruments having evil conversations. Three vocalists periodically interrupt the instrumental headiness and offer operatic deliveries in three languages in a sort of Renaissance polyphony. Most of this track is excellent but there are some awkward moments as if you suddenly were dropped into a German opera.

Tracks like "Two Looks At One End" and "Both Your Houses" point directly to the Art Bears for influence only ramped up to incorporate angular knottiness on steroids. Excellent use of polyphonic phrasing and exaggerated use of silence takes the U TOTEM experience into extraordinarily delicious avant-prog ecstasy. "Yellow Umbrella Gallery" is actually the weirdest track on board with various spoken word dialogue juxtaposed with completely free form abstract instrumentation and sound samples. All in all it sounds like a very strange LSD trip and would've fit perfectly on some psych album from the late 1960s. "The Judas Goat" is by far the most rock oriented with a heavy driving guitar presence, bantering bass and frenetic sax squawks and bassoonery. Like most tracks, it shape shifts and drifts in many directions. The closing "Vagabond's Home" is another lengthy beast at near 15 minutes and pure avant-prog all the way. An endless supply of time signatures, contrapuntal absurdities and instrumental tapestry effects make this one a keeper.

U TOTEM did an admirable job at mixing the avant-weirdness of classic Henry Cow with the vocals reminiscent of the Art Bears. Add some Univers Zero and Present styled chamber rock, a bit of zolo post-punk influences from the two parent bands of 5uu's and Motor Totemist Guild and you're in for a real avant-treat that only a true super group could achieve. While many deem this one an unbridled masterpiece, i personally have some issues with it. First of all the vocalists don't really do it for me. They are too "normal" for this kind of strange concoction of sounds. Predictable operatic vocals that don't generate an equal degree of mondo bizarro seem to fall flat however for the most part the excellent instrumental parts are beyond top notch. Perhaps another gripe is that the band tried too hard to throw too much into the cauldron and therefore certain aspects remain unresolved but despite this album not being perfect in my world, i can still listen to this one in utter awe for all the details that went into its creation. Any way you slice it, an excellent slice of avant-prog.

Latest members reviews

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. ... (read more)

Report this review (#376891) | Posted by ShW1 | Sunday, January 9, 2011 | Review Permanlink

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 b ... (read more)

Report this review (#204380) | Posted by progressive | Thursday, February 26, 2009 | Review Permanlink

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 ... (read more)

Report this review (#29119) | Posted by | Wednesday, September 1, 2004 | Review Permanlink

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. ... (read more)

Report this review (#29118) | Posted by | Saturday, April 24, 2004 | Review Permanlink

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