AMN Reviews: U Totem’s Debut Album 30 Years Later

There are so many ways to introduce U Totem. They were a short-lived five-piece progressive rock band from Southern California that came out of the merger of two earlier groups: Motor Totemist Guild (led by James Grigsby) and 5uus (led by Dave Kerman). Through group members and guests, U Totem can be connected to numerous bands, Thinking Plague and Cartoon being examples. In a way, U Totem was a centroid of North American avant-prog and Rock In Opposition (RIO) influenced music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This brings us to another way of introducing the group – as the logical successors to Henry Cow. U Totem’s self-titled debut (which is the focus of our discussion) is the closest thing that I’ve ever heard in spirit to Western Culture this side of Varese. But at the same time, U Totem doesn’t sound too similar to Western Culture, especially as the former makes heavy use of vocals while the latter is instrumental.

Another way of introducing the album is that it covers the last 500 years of western music history in 65 minutes. I did not come up with that observation, but after a fashion it fits. Indeed album’s seven tracks include two 15-minute epics sandwiching five other explorations. While there is a consistency throughout, each piece is unique and easily distinguishable from its companions. The album has even been the subject of a scholarly publication by music professor Brandon Derfler, who argued that U Totem should be considered in the broader category of “art music” rather than rock.

The core group was Emily Hay (voice, flute, piccolo), Sanjay Kumar (piano, electric keyboards, sitar), Eric Johnson-Tamai (bassoon, contrabassoon, soprano sax), Grigsby (bass, guitar, vibraphone, tapes), and Kerman (drums, percussion, tapes). But various tracks are enhanced with expanded lineups, typically featuring more vocalists or chamber instruments. The strong presence of flute and bassoon gives the music a distinctly classical feel, whereas the core elements of vocals, guitar bass, and drums pull in a more rock-oriented direction. Grigsby is often given credit for most of the compositions, but they were group efforts with Kerman heavily involved and other members contributing as well.

To the point of summarizing western music history, the opening track, One Nail Draws Another, features labyrinthine chamber rock structures and breaks, with an expanded nine-piece version of the group. There are passages with three vocalists simultaneously singing in three different languages (Renaissance polyphony), 12-tone serialism, ripping heavy guitar, and even sitar (okay, that’s not exactly western music but the main point is that you cannot easily put a box around these compositions). There is even a playful quote of the melody to rock band Blondie’s One Way or Another in the singing of “One Nail Draws Another”, as well as a few Orwellian references in the lyrics.

But rather than string together a bunch of different styles, which would not be terribly difficult to do nor would it be terribly creative, Grigsby and company integrate and combine these techniques with variations and embellishments of their own. It is not until you deconstruct One Nail Draws Another that you discover its breadth and depth. The track is nothing short of a tour de force of modern classical, art rock, and a bunch of other things.

Two Looks at One End blends studio manipulation with a slightly more straightforward structure. Well, straightforward with unusual percussion lines and a jagged rhythm. Dance of the Awkward continues the jagged rhythms with what might be considered circus-influenced music that switches tempos every few lines.

Both of Your Houses is one of the more multi-directional pieces, sounding reminiscent of the Art Bears while navigating through numerous chamber rock styles. Yellow Umbrella Gallery is a studio effort that makes a statement about commercialism in the form of a pastiche of recordings over abstract music. With it, Grigsby and company give a nod to musique concrète.

The Judas Goat is best labelled as avant-rock, with long instrumental breaks throughout its 10 minutes. The track also features a few unexpected textural moments including heavy metal guitar riffing toward the end. Vagabond’s Home is stylistically the most similar to One Nail Draws Another, with a distinct chamber rock approach start/stop rhythms. On the other hand, it replaces the epic power of the initial track with delicacy and relies far less on vocals. In doing so it employs both hyper-complexity and minimalism. The track ends with a repeating rhythmic structure over which flute and bassoon play contrapuntally, eventually being accompanied by Hay’s wordless singing.

In short, U Totem is one of very few albums that never wears out its welcome for me. Perhaps that is because it can hit you in on multiple levels – emotionally with its weird energy and listenability, and intellectually with its layers of detail and complexity. I am still unraveling its intricacies after three decades of listening.

And now a personal note. U Totem was scheduled to perform in Los Angeles in November 1993. I was studying at UC Davis at the time and had been blown away by the album.  I could not talk any of my friends into coming with me to the show, so I was planning on driving down and back (6-7 hours each way) by myself to take it in. A couple of days beforehand, I came down with a terrible case of the flu. I was in pretty bad shape, and my girlfriend made it clear that it would be insane for me to make the trip. So I reluctantly stayed home and missed the show. On the bright side, the girl is now my wife, and there is a rough hand-held video with a five-piece arrangement of One Nail Draws Another from the show I missed.

Aside from this performance, there is a set from the 1990 New Music Montreal festival on YouTube. Another seminal performance was when the group appeared at the Art Rock Festival in Hamburg. They also played off and on in the Los Angeles area through the course of their existence, often in small venues, dive bars, or house parties. Grigsby recorded a number of these performances but the audio remains unreleased.

Thanks to Emily Hay for chatting with me about U Totem and providing a first-person perspective on this album and the band. More information on U Totem and related efforts can be found on James Grigsby’s website, Rotary Totem.

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