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This is one of New York's most exciting improvising combos, but the Totem trio tends to ration out its gigs, rarely playing in the area. Thus, their Brooklyn-recorded disc, Solar Forgeis recommended. Even though no performance will be alike, it's a reasonable guide to the trio's general sound and strategy.
Bruce Eisenbeil's guitar has a very noticeable stereo-splitting, enlarging the vistas, sound, making tiny scrapes into potentially juddering strokes. He might be a brutalist, but the guitarist is also deeply aware of all sonic levels, heading right down to the delicate tinkle. Drummer Andrew Drury has a classic dismantling-of-an-automobile approach and bassist Tom Blancarte equals his colleagues in a match of speed-thought and immediate implementation of ideas. Towards the end of the opening "Blooming Ore," it's difficult to identify between bowed bass, scraped cymbal and whatever Eisenbeil's doing to his axe. The four pieces range from 10 to 16 minutes apiece, which is an ideal time for these extended soundscapes to evolve. "Austenized" probes the quiet zone, rummaging around with great sensitivity. Density, hardness and hyperactivity resume for "Hephaestus' Wrath" and the scrap yard can't be saved from destruction. After five minutes, the buzz saw mania is in full flow, operating within a jazz improv structure, but using a rock palette.
A similar approach prevailed at New York's Zebulon club at the end of January 2009, ESP-Disk's founder Bernard Stollman sitting right at the front, with a set that exuded the pungent air of resourceful improvising. Totem concerns itself with a rockier form of abstraction, amplified to a screaming, metal-groaning level which is all the more apparent out in the live field. Perhaps influenced by the rowdier barroom ambience, Totem left less space for tentative exploration and demanded a more argumentative approach. Eisenbeil mostly chose to avoid traditional guitar gestures, deploying metal skating devices or attacking all of the string areas, upper and lower extremities that are away from the accustomed bridge zone. Likewise Drury engaged in an extended bout of extreme small-cymbal scraping, sometimes issuing high trebly screams that were surprising, emanating from a low-amplified source. On this particular night, Totem's mission was to avoid sounding too much like guitar, bass and drums. The trio sent a few individuals running for the subway, but those that remained were clearly ensnared by this beautifully tense racket.