|Rob Walker||12-September-2002||Strange Attractors|
Strange Attractors is the 2nd CD from this west coast ensemble whose 1991 self-titled debut remains one of the best avant-garde/RIO-styled albums of the '90s. U Totem takes a strongly modern, expressionistic approach to their music, which is full of harsh dissonances, fragmented themes, and wildly dissimilar stylistic influences. On their newest release, their top-notch musicianship has been augmented by the addition of a guitarist as the group's sixth member, and as always, their challenging and highly complex music contains a tantalizing assortment of musical treats waiting for those willing to dig in.
Strange Attractors is effectively the soundtrack to bassist James Grigsby's novella of the same name. The music follows the text, included in the liner notes, with recurring themes which suddenly shift with the action and dialog, and fractionated melodies and atomistic rhythms which reflect the surreal atmosphere of the work. Compared to their first release, which, though strongly avant-garde, flowed quite well through the use of classical counterpoint and a relatively steady rhythmic pulse from the percussion, Strange Attractors proves to be a much more difficult listen due to the abundance of abrupt thematic transitions as well as the deconstruction of the basic musical elements. The albeit diluted rock influence that was present on their self-titled CD is all but gone here, as even more elements are incorporated from the diverse grab-bag of influences from which U Totem draws. Folk, popular, 20th century classical, and non-western musics are all represented, mixed up and combined in bizarre juxtapositions. The vocals have changed as well; the more traditional singing on the first album is replaced here by a Sprechstimme style which is used to declaim the significant amount of text in the novella.
With the caliber of the personnel in U Totem, and their track record in their respective groups 5uu's and Motor Totemist Guild, one would hardly expect them to succumb to the sophomore jinx and produce a stagnant rehashing of old ideas. Still, it's a pleasant surprise to see just how far they've progressed compositionally and stylistically since their initial collaboration. Collectively, the members of U Totem and its parent groups represent one of the brightest spots in contemporary progressive music. Check them out.
(Originally published in Exposť #5, p. 18-19, Edited for Gnosis
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