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MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD

RIO/Avant-Prog • United States


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Motor Totemist Guild biography
Motor Totemist Guild was formed in 1980 by composer James Grigsby and poet/singer Christine Clements. Throughout the 1970's Grigsby had been involved with the study and performance of electronic music, Renaissance polyphony, progressive rock, post-Webern serialism, Balinese gamelan and punk-jazz. Clements was active in the San Francisco poetry scene. In 1984, after a move to Los Angeles, they released their first project, Infra Dig, the inaugural LP release on Grigsby's private label, Rotary Totem Records. Augmented by a large group of musical guests, the album left critic Richard Gehr "entranced". Gerald Lokstadt commented on their eclectic approach, "their style can swing from blues/jazz to Elliot Carter, sometimes within the same composition!" He also noted that "their name is a spoof on every artist being part of a school or movement", though Grigsby maintains that it is a reference to techniques pioneered by the Italian Futurist composer, Luigi Futi.

Throughout the 1980's, MTG released several albums, and frequently performed live in the Los Angeles area with a pool of musicians associated with the California Outside Music Association (COMA) and Independent Composers Association (ICA). After Clements' departure in 1985, MTG continued as an instrumental group, combining Grigsby's Electric Chamber Music with free-improvisation, a direction influenced by the addition of woodwind ace Lynn Johnston and electric cellist Becky Heninger . In press releases at the time, they described their sound as " the songs of the mockingbird mixed with the delicate ambiance of a diesel exhaust pipe". In 1987, Emily Hay joined the ensemble, once again bringing vocals to the music, along with her considerable ability in playing the flute. By the end of the 1980's, MTG had grown to a sextet with percussionists Eric Strauss and David Kerman, and had collaborated with such diverse groups as 5uu's and the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble as well as taking part in a groundbreaking cultural exchange with musicians from Cambodia and Laos. In 1997, the recordings from this period were re-released on two CDs, Archive One and Archive Two by the No Man's Land label in Germany.

Into the Nineties...
In 1989, Grigsby and Hay joined together with David Kerman (drums) and Sanjay Kumar (keyboards) from 5uu's to form a new group, called U Totem. That same year, they were invited to perform along with Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Caspar Brotzmann, Bill Frisell and Mi...
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City of MirrorsCity of Mirrors
Cuneiform 1999
Audio CD$19.50
$26.39 (used)
infra dig LPinfra dig LP
ROTARY TOTEM
Vinyl$34.99
$29.14 (used)
Archives TwoArchives Two
No Man's Land
Audio CD$23.39
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MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD discography


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MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

2.17 | 3 ratings
Infra Dig
1984
1.00 | 1 ratings
Contact With Veils
1986
3.75 | 3 ratings
Shapuno Zoo
1988
3.17 | 3 ratings
Elements (with 5UU's)
1988
3.08 | 3 ratings
A Luigi Futi
1989
4.33 | 11 ratings
City of Mirrors
1999
4.00 | 3 ratings
All America City
2000

MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

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MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.29 | 7 ratings
Archive One
1996
3.33 | 11 ratings
Archive Two
1996

MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Elements (with 5UU's) by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1988
3.17 | 3 ratings

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Elements (with 5UU's)
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

3 stars And now from the other side

This album is a cooperation between MTG, leaded by James Grigsby, and the 5UU's, leaded by Dave Kerman. I've already posted my review to this album in the 5UU 's section. I post it again onther the MTG section, edited just a bit.

Second album to 5UU 's, that more than a band name it's a code name or logo for Dave Kerman and his cooperates. In this album he cooperates with the Motor Totemist Guild, in addition to some original 5uu's members. The other key member here is James Grigsby, the Totemists leader, and it seems that he took those origin, modern short songs by Dave Kerman, arranged them, 'structured' them a little bit, and the result is very captivating. On the other hand, James Grigsby gains here comunicativeness, brightness and catchier ideas than some other edgy Avant MTG materials. In fact this first cooperation between those two leaded the way to the next, faboulos cooperation of the U Totem s/t, that formed as a smaller rock group from the two afordmentioned bands.

The entire album sound is very warm and acoustic, featuring instruments such as piano, cello and various woodwinds. Most of the melodies could be considered as modern/avant 'quirky' ones, but with a lot of grace and some of contemplative mood. The lyrics, most of them written by Dave Kerman contain some philosophical thoughts about mankind and human nature, some 'echological' ideas, and some 'quirky' little stories.

The simplest song is 'Acknowledgments'. It sounds to me like a 40's-50's American song, delightful and sentimental tune instrumented by chamber acoustic ensemble. The most modern/avant song is 'Imperfections' which contain a unique structure: Each song line is separated from its successor by long silence, and starts with a dominant reverse effect. Any rhythmical approach is neglected, deliberately. This structure reminds me of some modern classical songs.

Other songs move in between those two edges, but tend much more to the avant direction. Few examples: 'The cause of merit' got interesting duo between vocals and bassoon, played by excellent bassoonist Eric Johnson. 'Elements' got a lazy, jazzy tune, with reminisents to some George Gershwin works. 'The artist' is accompanied by energetic drums and vibraphone from Dave Kerman.

The overall level of this album, in aspect of songwriting, musicianship, arrangements and so on, moves between very well to excellence. A little reservation I have from vocalist Kurt Wilson, that although doing a good job transferring these non simple songs, in musical and expression terms, nevertheless something is missing here for me, or maybe it's just the too 80's flavor vocals? But let's consider that this is the era which this album has been released, and sure they didn't act in a vacuum.

BTW the 'Imperfection' song could also be found in the 'Shapono zoo' album, with Emily Hay's vocals. Inspite Emily Hay being an excellent vocalist, nevertheless I prefer Kurt Wilson execution for this song. Maybe I just got used to it more than Hay execution.

eventually I've choose to rate this album in a modest rating of 3 stars, and I'll be consistent and won't change it in this second review. However in this case, the rating doesn't say much. This album is a 'survivor' in my shelve and continue being refreshing and moveing.

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 Archive Two by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Boxset/Compilation, 1996
3.33 | 11 ratings

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Archive Two
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

4 stars I've reviewed each of this compilation components respectively and this is just a brief summary, observation, and a bit of advice. This MTG compilation is so full of stuff, musical creativity, adventurous, details and complexity that I don't think it's a good idea to listen to the whole thing entirely at once. Certainly not at the first listens. I recommend dividing the listening to 3 or even 4 parts. First, listen to the 'Barbie variations', which start at track 8, up to the end. This is the earliest creation, and such cute and humorous. Then, go listen to the whole 'Shapuno zoo' album, which spread on tracks 1 to 6. You can divide the listening to two parts, side I and side II originally. (Tracks 1-3 and 4-6 respectively). Side I, (or track 1-3 if you are young/modern/don't care about LP's anymore) is relatively simpler, uplifting and catchier. Side II, (tracks 4-6) is more complex, gloomy and atmospheric. After you feel comfortable with 'Shapuno zoo' (which might take some time, there are so many things here to absorb), take a deep breath and go listen to 'Omaggio a Futi'. This was quite hard stuff for me, but could make a very unique listening treatment.

After I've listened to this compilation, I purchased the original vinyl of 'Shapuno zoo'. I intended to buy it via rotary totem records, Grigsby's company, which holds many old LP's related, but all of a sudden it became unavailable, right when I actually was about buying it. Luckily I've found an old copy on E-bay, a bit scratchy but still OK. The original vinyl holds one more track, 'Diamonds for Fishhooks' which is the last one in this album. It's an atmospheric track, which closes the album very well.

I much recommend about this compilation, especially for those who are already like and appreciate the bit-latter U-totem s/t. It may appear as less communicative and 'rocking' than the U-totem s/t, but truly not a bit less valuable. This compilation has a lot of its own uniqueness, depth, beauty and subtle humor.

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 A Luigi Futi by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1989
3.08 | 3 ratings

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A Luigi Futi
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

3 stars The Barbie question.

The header is taken from the creation 'Barbie variations' in this mini-collection by itself, which lies in a larger collection 'archive ii'. The review is based on 'archive ii' listening.

In fact I was surprised to find such a mature and good stuff from early '85. Most of the materials from that era by the band are still amateurish and mainly experimental (IMO). 'Barbie variations' is co-written by James Grigsby and Eric Strauss. From Barbie birth (by injection mold), to death (Barbie in hell) it comprise toys instruments such as children trumpets, keyboard toys, vibraphone, and some scratchy things I didn't recognized, along with the 'regular' classic/jazz instrumentation of the band. To this background, Eric Strauss narrated the amusing lyrics of few songs by poet Michal Herrin. Childish sections go along with jazzy sections, until the kind-of-funeral finale. But take it with a wink, after all it's not that serious.

As for the Barbie question mentioned above, I think I've heard it before. Absolutely a serious question, that deserve a deep discussion, but I'm too modest and moral to write it down here.

This unique and humorous composition alone worthy 4 stars in my opinion.

The second creation that belong to this mini-collection, 'Omaggio a Futi', is longer, and on the top avant guard that I've heard in this field (RIO, avant rock, call it as you like). It really tangible to classical avant guard. It's homage to Luigi Futi, a futurist composer. So it supposed to draws a lot of techniques from the futurism music world. After a nice tune with great bass line (BTW it appears also in 'Vagabonds home' from the follower s/t U Totem album), comes many musical events. Known and usual Concepts such as 'melody', 'harmony' and 'rhythm' are challenged here, since you not always will find or recognize them here. For instance, the first event is mainly vocalized, and the vocals just call the letters of the phrase 'Omaggio a Futi', the track name, sometimes manipulated by tapes.

There is a jazzy section in the middle that breaks down all this, and then back to the more abstract things. It lasts with a part of work that done with musicians of Cambodia and Laos: An old song, 'Follow the drinking gourd', is played and sung, but interrupted with Asian music and instrumentation sections, along with some tapes. It sound happenstance, but it turns out that it performed live, so it's not just a 'cut, copy and paste' work. And in further listens it become more clear and less happenstance from what is seems to be at first listens.

Nevertheless, even though this is a very interesting creation, I didn't manage to fully get into it. It didn't click on me sufficiently for a 4 stars rating. As I said, this is top avant guard in this field. And it's quite long, about 20 minutes, compared to the shorter (and preferred) 'Barbie variations', (which clocks in about 13 minutes). So the final rating for this album is 3 stars from me. In fact, this album could be found currently on vinyl at Rotary Totem records, Grigsby's record company. The vinyl version contains 8 more minutes, in two pieces, as I learned from the track list here. Right now I'm not intend to listen and review the vinyl version, (because of lack of time, money and other 'real life' issues). So the rating remains as it is, with the restriction that there are 8 more minutes to cover. I'll be happy if someone else take it upon himself/herself.

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 Shapuno Zoo by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1988
3.75 | 3 ratings

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Shapuno Zoo
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

4 stars The 'Shapuno zoo' album sound better than its problematic predecessors (IMO), in both terms of the ensemble sound and the materials. Join here Emily Hay on vocals and flute, a significant contribution from this point and furthermore. It's really a treat to listen to her, a fact that could be approved by U totem enthusiasts. Still in 'the guild' is excellent Becky Heninger on cello, in some strong riffs and roles. In fact all players are very creative and talented. Composer James Grigsby is everywhere, but always on the background, with diverse instrument list, mainly on bass that comes and goes in some short riffs. In fact this album is quite acoustic with very few electric and 'rockish' instruments. This is the situation in most of Grigsby's works (I think). The rock is still there, but in the background, on a fundamental level. There is a lot of classical influences (the modern type), jazz (the avant guard type) and a lot of Americana (such as musicals, cabaret, etc). Everything is done joyfully, in a sense of humor. This is definitely not 'dark' music, which is so 'popular' in RIO avant scene. However, this music is not a bit less avant than other efforts in this genre, on the contrary.

The compositions are really good here, but it takes some time to get through of them. Each one is different in terms of structure and atmosphere. James Grigsby frequently moves between the simplistic to the complicate, from the uppermost to the lowest, sometimes in the very same composition.

The relatively simplest and catchiest composition is track 4, 'Indian Bingo'. On a repeated riff appears talking and acting vocals, by Emily Hay and Eric Strauss, that tell a weird story about 'Shapuno zoo', that according to another text on the booklet, is an era in Brazil, or a zoo elsewhere, as far as I concern. There is a constant change between instruments, which comes and goes, complex rhythms and meters, and pleasant percussion play (from Dave Kerman). A lot of grace and enchantment here.

The most complex track is track 6, 'Prisms of Ribbon'. This is a complicate composition that starts with absolutely classic development of two movements, but somewhere in the middle the tight development is neglected and replaced by solo improvisations in avant style, by many instruments: saxophone, flute, tapes, bass and cello, with indirect reference to the opening movements. It ends up with some vague notes that create an odd atmosphere.

As I've mentioned before, these composition may be a hard nut to crack, it was not easy for me either, but it was well worth the time (and needless to say, the money) that put into it. In fact I did like most of it from first listens, but it took some more time to delve into it as a whole. I considered to leave it on 3 stars rating, inspite of my high estimation to this album, because it's not for the 'masses' anyway. But meanwhile, the compositions had grown on me. All other components are excellent, from execution to vocals, overall musicianship, and sound quality. So in these circumstances, I'll put the rate on 4 stars, which I'm doing happily. This album will definitely appeal to U Totem enthusiasts, as an earlier version to this act, and a solid effort on its own.

review #50

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 Archive Two by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Boxset/Compilation, 1996
3.33 | 11 ratings

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Archive Two
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by Mellotron Storm
Prog Reviewer

3 stars "Archive Two" is basically a compilation of two previously released albums from 1988 & 1989 called "Shapuno Zoo" and "A Luigi Futi" respectively. I have to admit right off the bat that this recording has been a difficult one for me to get into. And I mean all of it (haha). I so enjoyed "City Of Mirrors" but this is nothing like that.

"Set Of Crayons" has this native sounding rhythm as cello and vocal melodies compete. Marching style drums come in late. "Do The Crawl" has silence to start for too long then cello and flute arrive followed by other sounds.Vocals before 2 minutes and they will come and go. "Familiar Philippic" has these outbursts of sounds that come and go. Spoken male words before 1 1/2 minutes. It kicks into a steady groove around 3 minutes then it settles back a minute later. A familiar melody is covered 6 minutes in. "Indian Bingo" has spoken male and female vocals with music. It's humerous but I can't get into it. "Imperfections" is led by flute and piano early then it settles when the vocals arrive around a minute. Not a fan.

"Prisms Of Ribbon" opens with flute as other sounds join in.This is very classical sounding. "Omaggio A Futi" is a 20 minute track that features muscians from both Laos and Cambodia as they did this cultural music exchange. Drums and keyboards lead early, flute then cello follows. A calm after 3 1/2 minutes with spoken words. A change after 8 1/2 minutes as we get a lot of [%*!#]ing meandering here. It kicks in after 13 1/2 minutes. A calm 15 1/2 minutes. Female vocals after 17 1/2 minutes. Next up is the "Barbie Variations" starting with "Birth By Injection Mold" which opens with the sounds of someone ordering food in a restaurant. Experimental sounds then take over. "Marriage And Divorce" opens with cello as piano and other sounds come and go. "G.I. Joe Vs. Ken" opens with spoken words and music. Dissonant sax comes and goes. Female spoken words too before 2 minutes then more male words. "Barbie In Hell" is slow moving with sparse piano and other sounds.

I can only offer up 3 stars for this one. It's just not my bag.

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 City of Mirrors by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1999
4.33 | 11 ratings

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City of Mirrors
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by Mellotron Storm
Prog Reviewer

4 stars Where do I start with this one ? James Grigby from U TOTEM is the mastermind behind this complex and adventerous album. What inspired him to create this work was an American band leader from the 40's named Stan Kenton who pushed the envelope back in the "Swing Era" with his different ideas about music. He had a massive 40 piece band perform a piece called "City Of Glass" which was unique in Big Band literature. Not Jazz or Classical but a blend of different styles. So this is sort of James' tribute to "City Of Glass" some 50 years later and obviously in Grigsby's unique style. He has a 14 piece band here including the great Emily Hay on flute throughout and vocals on one track, while Dave Kerman adds percussion throughout and drums on two tracks.Yes this really is a blend of Jazz, Classical, Chamber Music with lots of Avant passages as well.This really is an album that will keep me challenged and scratching my head for years to come. The album starts and ends with two accessible tracks that I enjoy so much. Everything in between leaves me shaking my head in amazement.

"Tower Of London" has all those intricate sounds with male vocals. Such an enjoyable listen. "Scarfnet" is where Emily sings. A long track that changes and evolves throughout. Different styles come and go here. I particularly like it from before 7 minutes (where we get some crazy horns) to the end. Great tune. "Narcotic Lollipop" opens with piano as horns toot away. It turns more powerful although the tempo and mood continue to change a lot. Jazzy with bass and horns 3 minutes in. More of a Chamber Music flavour as it settles after 6 minutes until around 10 1/2 minutes when the horns start to blast. "Prudes Vs Libertines" features different sounds that come and go. We get a rhythm after 3 minutes. Intense 4 1/2 minutes in as the song ends.

"Bixby Slough" is the over 28 minute live epic. It includes the band members being introduced late. One of my favourite parts is when he's finished the introductions everyone in the band lets loose and we get this onslaught of sound then it ends. It opens with lots of atmosphere, almost eerie really, even spacey. It turns experimental and dissonant then settles around 7 minutes. Haunting background noises before 10 minutes then the sound picks up and gets fuller. People in the band start yelling 11 1/2 minutes in, then we get some insane horns. It's jazzy 13 1/2 minutes in with bass and horns. It sounds pretty bizzare a minute later. Introductions 22 minutes in. "Blood In The Tower" is like the instrumental version of the opening track.

Not for everyone of course, but I know Logan and Avestin are fans of this record and you can add me to that list too. 4.5 stars.

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 Infra Dig by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1984
2.17 | 3 ratings

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Infra Dig
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

2 stars The first album by this very interesting and rewarding ensemble, leaded by composer and multi instrumentalist James Grigsby, is a very primary work that still not meets the level of the later works. It holds some experiments, one execution to an old song, and one really good avant song, and that's more or less all. 4 Musicians consists the first incarnation of MTG, and many other guest musicians. They create quite interesting sound, helped by vibraphones, brass, synths, electric guitar and more. Nice vocals from Christine Clements, but sound a bit 'swallowed' occasionally. Track 1, 'Edison games', starts with brass clusters and after a while turns into some jazzy motives. Track 4, 'Mute tape process' is an interesting experiment with tapes. Track 7, 'Stares in steps' is the song I've mentioned before, start as an avant song with intriguing sung melody, goes to some 'ha ha' vocals, in the vein of 'O Superman' by Lorie Anderson, and closed by some vague piano improvisation. Apart from these, there are not much enjoyable and memorable moments here. I've heard this album very few times, and it doesn't seem that I'll listen to it again in the near future. It comes as part one of 'Archive one' album. Very surprisingly this album is still available as LP at Rotary totem records. Two stars for this effort, definitely for dedicate fans only. I would suggest for those who are interested in this band, and you should be if you are into high quality composed avant guard music, that you start your listening from the 'Archive two' album, which contains much better materials. And of course do not miss U TOTEM, (if you didn't listen to it yet), the other band from the breeding ground of James Grigsby.

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 City of Mirrors by MOTOR TOTEMIST GUILD album cover Studio Album, 1999
4.33 | 11 ratings

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City of Mirrors
Motor Totemist Guild RIO/Avant-Prog

Review by ShW1

5 stars This creation by James Grigsby is a very distinct one, even in RIO terms. It's written for a large ensemble that features a lot of wind instruments among other things. The first and prominent thing that come up to the ears right from the start, is the alternation between serious, 20th modern classical music sections, and combo-jazz sections, inspired (mainly) from big-bands, around the 20 - 30's era, as a tribute to Stan Kenton, a unique musician from that times. For those who are interested up to now, please read more details in the excellent bio here.

Most of the alternations are very smooth and made very wisely and carefully by Grigsby. Even the more shape alternations sound natural, so the experience from the listener point of view is not being 'throwing' into many directions without meaning or just arbitrariness, on the contrary. Once you are listening to serious avant music, performed very skillfully by the ensemble, and all of a sudden your leg starts to move to the bit of an excellent jazz combo with great solos, done by the same ensemble. All this create a very distinct listening treat.

Albeit the very high complexity here, one could easily get into the atmosphere of this record, right from the first listening. Tracks 2 to 5 offer an adventurous journey from (relatively) light, to much more dark and brooding atmosphere, as the music evolves. While each track could be listened to as a stand alone one, nevertheless the whole tracks together creates a true and unique album treat.

Track 2, 'Scarfnet', start as an avant guard song, sung by vocalist and flutist Emily Hay, and continue with a complicate instrumental development. Some of the jazzy sections lean towards Afro Cuban music, with calypso rhythm, bongos here and there and some other percussion as well. Great solos from Jerry wheeler on trombone, Jeff Kaiser on trumpet, and Vinny Golia on bass clarinet.

Track 3, 'Narcotic lollipop', is based on one motive and all sorts of blasting and trumpet calls. The theme goes from instrument to instrument, played in a different tempos and phases. The development is dense, even more complicate and unusual than before, lean heavily toward classical contemporary music. The breaks to jazz and vice versa still go on, with fantastic trombone solo from George McMullen, and 'crazy' saxophone solo from Lynn Johnston.

Track 4, 'Prudes Vs Libertines' is a kind of break from the previous two: a short and beautiful electronic piece. Tones and sounds here and there, intriguing chords, and many glisses characterize this track. The atmosphere is dark and haunting.

Track 5, 'Bixby Slough - interpretations by all players', is performed live. This track is a free group improvisation done by all, simultaneously. The players are moving from section to section altogether, correlate to each other, probably conducted by James Grigsby. Some of the previous motifs from tracks 2 and 3 are being used, include the jazzy ones. This part of the track will not come to an end before 20 minutes, leaving enough room for everyone to express. The top of all this occurrence are the last seven minutes of the track (not included in the time mentioned above): pure traditional jazz while Grigsby presents every band member and each member provide his/her own solo, on a very simple bass riff (helped by drums, guitar and piano). Even the sound and the micing are done here in the vein of a vintage 30's sound. The result is fantastic.

The 1'st and last track are apparently unconcerned: a relatively simple and melodic song, ('Tower of London' / 'Blood in the Tower'), performed first by vocalist Curt Wilson, and second as a karaoke mix. The satisfied listener could join humming, or follow the rich arrangement of this song.

This album is essential for those who are looking for a high-quality composed RIO, in a similar vein of John Zorn, Fred Frith and alike. (And even this description is an understatement). Unfortunately, the CD is OOP for a while (OOPS...). Personally I don't get how such a high quality effort could be out of print. (This record is the only MTG record that printed under Cuneiform records and not by Rotary Totem Records). It wasn't too hard to find a copy over the internet. It was a little bit more expensive, but it's worth every cent. I hope that this CD will be printed again in the nearest future (maybe under Rotary Totem), and obliged to buy an "authorities" copy of this great work, as soon as it comes available.

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