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Published: 2010/08/23
by Tom Volk

Totem Improv Series 1

Released earlier this year, Akron/Family’s Totem Improv Series 1 is a mostly instrumental and quite worthy addition to the band’s catalogue. Over the course of the 78 minute release you can ride along with the Akron’s as they skronk, distort, and levitate their way through with a touch of spoken word and trademark weirdness thrown in for good measure. The ride is awkward at times, there is no shortage of dissonance and shrieking feedback but the moments of transcendence that follow them make this album a worthy addition for even the casual fan’s music library. Released via their website with a “pay us what you will” feature it would be worth forking over some of you hard earned cash and give it a spin.

Song titles are incidental here, merely markers for the trip through the album. Totems one through six comprises the first six songs but they can really be addressed as one piece of music. They start out like your favorite garage band getting loose for the night ahead. That garage band feel belies what is to come through the course of the first six tracks guitarist Seth Olinsky unleashes a furious torrent of feedback, fuzzed out leads and jangly chording under the pulsating, almost tribal backbeat provided by Dana Janssen and Miles Seaton through the first piece. It’s a fun if not quite magical beginning, the type of session I’d imagine that the band has engaged in a lot since guitarist/vocalist Ryan Vanderhoof left right after the release of 2007’s Love Is Simple as they searched for a new identity as a three piece.

The shrieking guitar work fades out to a quiet groove towards the end of “Totem 6” which leads in to the unquestioned centerpiece of the album, a gorgeous piece entitled “Changing Positions of the Sun.” Some melodic soloing from Olinsky gives way to a single, repetitive chord that must have descended from heaven that permeates the entire 16 minute long jam. I can’t stress to you enough just how subtle and beautiful this chord is, it’s the kind of sublime grouping of notes that makes you want to race to the attic and dust off that old Gibson you bought in high school to start picking out the notes just to recreate it. Its effect is narcotizing, Jansen fills in with a high hat fills over the top while Seaton provides some discordant synthesizer work for color while the chord washes over the gradually pulsating beat. More swells of distorted guitar and feedback build throughout the track. In the run up to the release of last years “Set ‘em Wild Set ‘em Free” Olinksy talked about how the band had been listening to a lot of African music, the feel of which is certainly evident in the spirit of this track without aping the genre overtly.

“Village Awareness” and “Totemic” see the band get a little self indulgent, eccentric spoken word poetry for its own sake is out of place after the first half hour of music prowess. That can be forgiven as “Planning Sideways, Graphical” and “Fixation Star Grid” follow built upon an ethereal bass line that drives the track through yet more guitar swells and synthesizer weirdness to great effect. The bass line is so pretty it almost makes the recorder that appears in “Fixation Star Grid” tolerable but really, it has no place in there. It prevents this section from taking its place alongside “Changing Positions of the Sun” as co-MVPs of the album. Bad memories of recorder misadventures in Mrs. Higgins fourth grade music class at Sherwood Elementary come to mind. Fortunately it doesn’t last for too long as the track closes out with a percussion jam accented by what sounds like an out of tune nylon acoustic, out of tune in the best possible way. “Numbers Growing” is almost a throwaway, more percussion and recorder nonsense.

Things get interesting, fuzzy, and very loud as what is essentially the album’s closer “Always been Ways to Here” which starts with a wall of feedback that build and builds over the beginning three minutes and gives way to a wailing, cosmic riffing courtesy of Olinsky that only the gradually driving rhythm provided by Janssen can keep grounded. “And In The” repeats the spoken mantra “A totem of pudding, totemica” found earlier in “Totemic” underneath a sped up sound collage to close out the album .

If an album is a snapshot of a band at the time and place they were at when recorded than this one, taken this past winter, shows a band well on its way to solidifying its identity as a three piece. It is a good sign of things to come and hopefully not the last Totem that family drops on us in between proper albums.

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