(All Album Reviews by ffroyd)
Tuner has decided to re-release this CD so I figured now is a good time to rewrite my review since I wasn’t that happy with my original write-up of the album. It was confusing and difficult to read, so I hope this one is going to be somewhat clearer. Totem was one of my favorite releases of 2005, although it didn’t receive that much attention from the progressive music community. This reissue has given me the opportunity to revisit this strange and wonderful album. Hopefully this new version will find a much broader audience but I don’t really think that much has changed in the past three years.
This is a duo consisting of Markus Reuter (guitarist from Centrozoon) and Pat Mastelotto (percussionist from the recent incarnations of King Crimson.) They had worked together on a few projects previous to this and decided they could make some interesting new music together. The focus on Totem seems to be exploration, especially in the industrial/electronic side of the musical spectrum. The tracks can be very harsh ala Skinny Puppy at one moment and then turn into some crazy experimental noise thing at the next moment. As always, Pat has an arsenal of various electronic and acoustic percussions at his disposal and uses them all very ingeniously. To compliment the intense percussion, Reuter’s guitar work resembles Robert Fripp’s to a certain degree. Folks looking for that wild dissonant Crimson fix should definitely be able to sink their teeth into this one.
The disc opens up with “Flinch” and right away there’s something unsettling afoot. The erratic rhythm patterns had me checking to see if my CD player was malfunctioning when I first heard this and today it still doesn’t seem right. Not only is there lots of strange percussion but it’s hard to say what instruments are making the music. I would guess some sort of guitar/keyboard hybrid is making the melodies (if you want to call them that.) There are also some strange sampled voices in the background and an eerie ambient drone somewhere in there as well.
The track “Up, down, forward and return” is the first on this disc to employ what seems to me as an almost random writing technique from Reuter. Words and phrases appear to get digitally chopped up and reassembled into the mix. There’s some heavy drumming and mesmerizing guitar work that just enhances this effect.
The original Totem CD contained a couple Quicktime videos for the song “Mouthpiece” but they are not included on the reissue. I guess they opted for better sound quality and didn’t have enough room on the disc for the videos. You don’t miss much by not being able to see the videos; in fact, I had totally forgotten they even existed until I looked over my old review. The music on this one is little bit like the group Boards of Canada with a slightly heavier edge.
The title track is another weird one, but aren’t they all? The main ingredient here is looped tracks. Things start out simple with just a tribal drumbeat and some background atmosphere. Other noises keep getting added on and things get rather complex. The piece ends with some quiet droning tones.
The vocal effects on “A Test of Faith” remind me a lot of King Crimson’s “Deception of the Thrush.” Later on, the grooves take over with some nice heavy bass sounds and a funky drum beat.
The track “The Morning Tide Washes Away” features synthetic female vocals reciting lyrics that were created in that same scramble and paste fashion mentioned earlier. The vocalist is Sirenée from Innsbruck, Austria. She’s also on Tuner’s second CD Pole and appears on several more tracks there. This music on this one has a softer, almost alien quality and the vocals towards the end are breathtaking.
“Hands” sees the duo diving into the really deep end of the pool with a funky African providing the rhythm to go along with some bizarre synth sounds. This turns into a dreamy ambient space thing. Pat’s drumming is truly noteworthy on this track and his electronic experimentation always makes the music interesting, It’s obvious that a lot of Bruford had rubbed off on Pat, and that’s a great thing.
The next two track “Better Take Your Head Off” and “Kiss The Earth” feature some really intense soundscapes and trippy guitar work from Reuter. His tone palate is a very broad and he does things I don’t even think Fripp or Eno could conjure up.
The final track on the album “Dexter Ward” starts out quiet and slowly builds up a heavy industrial groove. The heavy rhythm towards the end of this one gets me bopping my head every time. The disc ends with some soft synth tones and some muffled ambience.
I really can’t say one bad thing about this album. The newly remixed and remastered version only enhances the listening experience with a sharper sound quality that brings out added nuances in the music. If you’re a fan of the more experimental side of King Crimson and it’s various side projects, you really need to check this one out if you haven’t already.
(re-written 7/20/2008 by ffroyd)