TOTEM> – Voices of Grain (2013)

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When outer fringe guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil got together with kindred spirits Tom Blancarte (upright bass) and Andrew Drury (drums) to form TOTEM>, they injected fresh concepts in the improvised music arena. Their introductory long player Solar Forge (ESP-Disk) made an impactful impression to many of jazz’s top critics, not to mention this site, which bestowed the “best avant-garde record” distinction for the year 2008.

The way I described Solar Forge back then went like this: “There’s no perceptible sense of any song structure whatsoever nor is the music either tuneful or melodic, yet it’s rich in detail and intonation.” The style of music coined “New Timbralism,” by liner notes author Michael Anton Parker dispenses with the whole notion of music being melody and meters, looking at it in the broader sense of being a collection of sounds that throw off emotions and sending messages via pure resonance.

Voices of Grain comes five years later but none of the momentum is lost. Impactful, yes, but abundant in the details not commonly found in power trios. The devil, they say, can be found there, and it’s all over this record; you’ll not likely encounter such symbiosis elsewhere within music that’s so instinctual.

“Genosong” opens with Eisenbeil’s signature fractured chords and Blancarte providing a perfect low end counterpoint. Drury merges his drums with the bass, playing the same kind of spidery pulses. The song gradually moves off its diffused state and gaining density, as Eisenbeil’s guitar gets more agitated and Blancarte remains relatively steady and freewheeling at once. Eisenbeil skillfully manipulates channel shifting, making it sound as if there are two guitars and Drury is locked in so closely to him, he’s nearly completing his indecipherable sentences.

That thick track is followed by a dispersed piece, “Written In The Body,” a low rumble that evokes a mood of dread. An insanely slow bowed bass creates a weird drugged sound, like a recording at one fourth speed, and the whole thing mimics tape manipulation. Eventually the drone evolves into an organic industrial hiss, as Eisenbeil is subtly creating very alien noises. The nervous energy and the semi-swing of Blancarte and Drury make “Counter Memory” seem like some contorted version of jazz, retaining the tightness of a rhythm section and the improvisational flair of the lead instrument. But Eisenbeil uses a variety of techniques and effects to run his notes through an Osterizer, highlighted by the scraping and feedback drenched dissonance around the 7:20 mark, taking Hendrix to the wack extreme. At around 9:00, Drury goes to the rims and everyone chops up their notes in response.

“Towards Jouissance” has the sound of heavy, creaky machinery lumbering along. Eisenbeil holds and bends random notes like a warped bell and deftly manipulates the feedback. “Message Without A Code” finds Blancarte scraping at such a high pitch, it resembles a violin section, bringing it down to form a low, frightful hum. Eisenbeil is meanwhile wringing scrapes and other odd noises across the desolate, bumpy sonic landscape. “Post-Repeating” begins as a duet between Eisenbeil and Blancarte, and the two are of one mind. Drury enters after a few minutes, responding to the Eisenbeil/Blancarte interaction, then works them up to a frenzy as Blancarte alternately scrapes and plucks his bass and Eisenbeil rains down a shitstorm of noise darting back and forth between the left and right channels.

After all the upheaval and chaos up to this point, it’s probably fitting they end it with a passage of relative serenity. “Silence On Its Road” hovers just above stillness, a humming resonance from Eisenbeil’s guitar that resembles a church organ, while Blancarte intrudes on the calm by making creepy sounds from the scratching of his bass strings.

Voices of Grain goes to show — as Solar Forge previously did so well — that when you remove all the artificial parameters of what defines music and focus on making engaging timbres instead, the only limitations are the skill and imagination of the musicians. Fortunately, Eisenbeil, Blancarte and Drury have both of those things in ample supply.

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Voices of Grain will be unleashed November 12, courtesy of New Atlantis Records.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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