Subject: I have found a CD that I think you would enjoy
A true fusion of 20th century classical with rock
A. Temple | Ann Arbor, MI | 06/11/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The CD 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 collaboration 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. For those of you familiar with the 5uu's, Kerman's music here is pretty much business as usual, although more extended, less proggy-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. Nor would you necessarily know from listening to _Hunger's Teeth_ that Kerman was capable of the delicate beauty of the flute solo that opens the same song. Good though Kerman's music may be here, the album is really stolen by Grigsby. I'm not familiar with the Motor Totemist Guild's music (yet), so I can't really compare, but it seems to me that Grigsby simply has more breadth and imagination than Kerman. 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."
Lord Chimp | Monkey World | 10/25/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"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."