Totem>: Solar Forge (2008)
The significance of the ">" sign in the group's name is unclear, but if it was taken to suggest that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts then few would argue. With components like Brooklyn-based guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Andrew Drury, the result is certain to bear scant resemblance to a traditional guitar and rhythm section date.
In contrast to Eisenbeil's previous disc Inner Constellation (Nemu, 2007), which showcased his distinctive fretwork in a wide-ranging compositional framework, the four open-ended group improvisations here eschew traditional tonalities in favor of a palette of scrapings, beepings and juddering rumbles, forced into the syntax of jazz.
Upcoming bassist Blancarte is best known for his tight-knit work with trumpet virtuoso Peter Evans' quartet and in the duo Sparks, while Drury is a leader in his own right and an important part of Jason Kao Hwang's Edge. The percussionist takes his predilection for unconventional timbres to its logical conclusion here, and all three utilize the extended instrumental techniques of free improv to populate a soundscape which conjures images of post-industrial decay.
Though the liners posit the band as a power trio, the forward motion here is imparted through the cumulative layering of scrapes, plucks, wheezes and pops, which frequently confound attempts to assign them to the instrumentation at hand, rather than bombastic rhythmic patterns. "Annealed" passes by in a kaleidoscope of gurgles and fizzing swooshes, while "Hephaestus' Wrath" almost sounds conventional in this company, with skittering, effects-drenched guitar lines pitched against clattering percussion and droning arco bass harmonics.
To its credit, the revitalized ESP label has not reclined on the laurels of its reissues program, but is keeping up the tradition of forward-looking and eclectic programming while maintaining the original ethos complete with its Esperanto tag and "the artist decides" slogan. Perfecting the update is stylish packaging with artwork by MP Landis, redolent of decomposing paint and metal, including a booklet of provocative liners. While not for everyone, the adventurous listener should seek out this powerful reimagining of the guitar trio. Perhaps that ">" sign indicates fast forward.
Track Listing: Blooming Ore; Austenized; Hephaestus' Wrath; Annealed.
Personnel: Bruce Eisenbeil: guitar; Tom Blancarte: upright bass; Andrew Drury: drum set.