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Music Review: Totem> – Solar Forge

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I’ve got that itch again. It’s an itch that manifests itself whenever I listen to music with form, predictability and harmony for too long.

Yes, folks, it’s time to cleanse the soul with some good, gut punching whack jazz, and Solar Forge by Totem> is the elixir.

Totem> (yes, the “>” is part of the name) is a trio devoted to dedicated to collective improvision combining the acoustic (Andrew Drury drums; Tom Blancarte, acoustic bass) with the electric (Bruce Eisenbeil, electric guitar).

Bruce Eisenbeil is the primary driving force in this band. He’s also not a stranger to this space. We took a quick look last fall at a record where he led an entirely different type of avant garde ensemble. Inner Constellations, Volume 1 was a challenging piece of music for Eisenbeil and his group for that CD, but the much smaller combo Totem> presents a stiff test of a different nature. Most of which is, the music isn’t scored in advance.

Instead, Solar Forge by Totem> is free jazz in the most undiluted way, recorded live in the studio with no edits or overdubs. 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. As described by the liner notes written by author Michael Anton Parker, there’s an actual name for this kind of free jazz, “New Timbralism,” where there is a “merging into a central region of sounds detached from the conventional identity of their instruments, while achieving the magical balance between shared momentum and independent pulse.”

From what I’m able to gauge by listening to the album, Parker is right. There’s a convergence of sounds from all three that centers around Eisenbeil’s guitar. Eisenbeil is alternately making his guitar approximate the drums with his percussive plucking or string scraping, and at others times emits a low drone that blends right in with Blancarte’s bass. The tempo changes appear to be directed by him as well. At the same time, Blancarte and Drury are acting independently with the broad swath of leeway they’re given to work with.

There’s only four tracks here, each running within the 10-15 minute range. To the unaccustomed ear “Blooming” sounds much like the break down part of “Helter Skelter” (which honestly, is my favorite part of that song, anyway). Eisenbeil plucks along to Drury, strums in concert with Blancarte, and coaxes his guitar to emit some of the most weirdly wonderful feedback sounds you’ll hear anywhere. About nine minutes in Blancarte attacks his bass with a bow, Tom Cora style.

Interestingly enough, the guy playing with the most subtlety is the drummer; Drury favors the percussional shadings and sinuous touches over balls-to-the-wall banging. It’s one of the attributes that sets this band apart from other experimental noise bands.

“Austenized” is the first of two ballads (in the broadest sense of the word) in this cluster of clamor, and it’s here where Drury’s subtleties play a lead role in shaping the character of the song. At one point, Eisenbeil and Blancarte are making sounds that resemble a gaggle of grackles, and leave the listener wondering how in the heck they did that without the aid of studio technology.

“Hephaestus’ Wrath” resumes the furious pace of “Blooming” that eventually gives way to Eisenbeil’s shimmering guitar, which provides the canvas on which Blancarte paints with sharp strokes of his bow. “Annealed” contains an intriguing exercise in the use of amplifier buzz contrasted by the distant rumble of Drury’s tom toms. At just under ten minutes, it’s the shortest performance on the disc.

Solar Forge was released last month by ESP-Disk. ESP was a tiny label in the mid-sixties that became the launching pad for the careers of such whack jazz luminaries as Albert Ayler, Sonny Simmons, and Milford Graves. Eisenbeil himself had once worked with legendary free jazz percussionist Graves. Three years ago, the label came back to life and is now releasing both old and new recordings. Solar Forge is a direct continuation of the uncompromising spirit of those seminal original ESP releases.

As a bandleader, ensemble player and soloist, Eisenbeil has really emerged as a visionary leader in the NYC improvised music scene, especially in the last few years. He’s earned a spot amongst Marc Ribot, Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser and Nels Cline as one of the premier avant garde guitarists out there today. Solar Forge makes a strong case for Bruce Eisenbeil to be included in that kind of company.

Ahhh, sweet, sweet cacophony…

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