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U Totem

1 rating: 5.0
An album by U Totem
1 review about U Totem


  • Oct 25, 2003
U Totem is the project of bassist James Grigsby (Motor Totemist Guild) and one-of-a-kind drummer Dave Kerman (the 5uu's). They are joined by some familiar faces in the US "Rock-In-Opposition infrastructure": Sanjay Kumar on keys, Emily Hay on voice and flute, and Eric Johnson-Tamai on bassoon. It is appropriate to be excited for this project, given those involved. Fittingly, this is one of the best avant-rock/USRIO albums you're likely to hear. If you enjoy bewilderingly complex rock music sluiced with modern classical influences, it'd be hard not to like.

As you may have read in other reviews, U Totem is of course rock influenced by a lot of 20th century classical music. The music is pretty much atonal, yet still catchy (but not in a "cheap fun" way that reduces the album's long-term appeal). It's actually VERY addicting. While full of memorable melodies (I think so anyway), the music has a complexity approaching Henry Cow's _Western Culture_. The instrumentation consists of those I mentioned above, and some songs feature additional instruments like violin and saxophone. Often the rock element is a subtext for music, as opposed to the stormy drive that gives bands like the 5uu's or Thinking Plague their muscle. The vocals are mostly done by Emily Hay in a fluid-but-subdued operatic sweetness. There are also strange twelve-tone, dissonant-yet-catchy vocal lines, and "Both Your Houses" has her screaming distantly behind some tuneful male vocals. Hay is also joined by some male performers on the beautiful choral tapesty in the middle of "One Nail Draws Another".

I like the Dave Kerman songs a lot, but my favorite is definitely the first song, James Grisby's "One Nail Draws Another". The longest song on the album, it beautifully flows through many different motifs with an evocative, intelligent flow and cohesion. And it is as beautiful as it is resourceful. "Vagabonds Home" is the second longest track, and it ends the album. The ending is pretty cool. A quirky melody (that appears elsewhere in the song in widely varying contexts), gradually developed for several minutes minimalist-like. "Dance of the Awkward" is kind of like Bartok on acid in a bizarro cartoon world. Kerman has grown a lot as a composer (check out the more recent Kerman/5uu's discs, _Regarding Purgatories_ and _Abandonship_), but his writing here is pretty darn good. "The Judas Goat" is full of nasty, dense & dissonant chamber rock. "Both Your Houses" has some very aplomb, exquisite chamber parts, and "Two Looks At One End" is the most fun song on the CD, even with its strange texture.

"Yellow Umbrella Gallery" seemed to get boring at first, but then I noticed how effective it was: vocal samples stacked on top what sounds like a half a blasting rock band suddenly dropped into a small chamber group performance and everyone continues doing what they were doing before, creating a strange, engaging mesh of sound.

This album is no small part of what got me into exploring 20th century classical music in the first place. But it's no poor man's classical music replacement -- it is damn fine work that ranks high. That's not to say the album is perfect, but it is a Grade A disc for sure. If you enjoy this and haven't heard Henry Cow, go buy _Western Culture_. It's more difficult but an important album. Check out it. If your idea of rock & classical is Metallica's _S&M_, I'd stay away from all of this stuff though.

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