There is no review I could possibly write that isn’t going to equal a vain attempt to draw White Suns into the kind of rationalistic, logocentric, and normative matrix they spend the bulk of Totem trying to fuck up. So how to proceed? Simply type as if the critical enterprise and its semi-formal logic isn’t inherently doomed to be the antithesis of its own object, or lapse into the manic destructiveness of an album it should be translating as sympathetically as possible into words? Well, as much as I’d relish scribing a few paragraphs of militantly indulgent auto-deconstruction, of erratic semi-incoherence, I think some kind of cheap, sub-Joycean imitation of Finnegans Wake would get old real quick, so forgive me while I strive to incorporate another expression of human spontaneity into the meta-text of Truth and Reason that conveniently defines the world for us and our excessively policed lines through it1.
First things first, White Suns are deserving of this typification as destroyers by virtue of how they eschew cyclical and reiterative compositional structures, rushing instead for linear, disintegrating blitzes that invoke decay and entropy more than sustainability and control. There’s none of this verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus symmetry bollocks on Totem, very little structural repetition and phrasal recurrence, and consequently very little of the connoted sense of regularity, order, and discipline that furtively undermines the pretenses of more controlled (noise) rock bands to be somehow negating the entrenched social architectures they implicitly emulate and reinforce. In “Priest In The Laboratory,” the Brooklyn trio open their third album with a torrent of scattered “riffs” that wrench themselves from one screaming apex to the next, until they collapse into decentered gnashing and then into disfigured groans. The unbridled energy of the cut is exhilarating, and in combination with the rhythmic looseness of the band’s frenzied attack, it does everything it can to save itself from being raised as an aural reassurance of a stability and harmony that has probably never even existed.
Perhaps this anti-formal brutality can be overstated, what with “Priest In The Laboratory” deploying one rabid hook that does in fact reappear for a second bite at the walls. Yet a parsing of Totem’s lyrical bent yields confirmation that Rick Visser, Dana Matthiessen, and Kevin Barry aren’t simply enamored with blistering caprice for its own sake, and that their gushes of unhinged “playing” and very slightly peeved vocals are wedded to an invective they direct against the homogenizing, omni-regulating tendencies of mass society, the obstinate sequences of utilitarian behavior we all demand from each other, and the obstinate musical sequences that are a reinforcing correlate for their civil counterparts. “World-Lock” depicts this mass society as a Pavlovian nightmare, with Barry yelping over a harsh pounding to remind us that “They will not introduce/ An unconditioned mind/ Into their closed network,” before the whole outfit fling themselves into a crossfire of detonating guitar and harried drums.
The same issue finds alternative expression in “Clairvoyant,” one of several album highlights and a track that hurtles through contorted leads, rampant percussion, and a truly deranged, malevolent, vicious, feral, lumbering black hole of a coda that throttles the piece to its inevitable demise. During the brief scatters of its lull, we hear the grievance, “My god’s face is made of mirrors/ My god’s face looks like my father’s,” which in the context of the vitriol that Totem launches against social engineering reads as a testament to the authority figures who divine our every act via a continual, predisposing application of praise, acceptance, punishment, and rejection.
And the band do whatever they can to shake themselves free of this enclosure, passing beyond the already trenchantly unorthodox arrangements of Sinews into inchoate surges of distortion and frazzled electronics that often go so far as to jettison time signatures altogether, as if rejecting the conformity and intersubjective synchronization that such things as common meter reflect and foster. “Disjecta Membra” is a free-form bundle of instrument abuse and impulsive drum-work that’s no less caustic than its more direct siblings, the climax of the ear-ringing, churning “Cathexis” turns around a stop-start burst of ordnance that slyly alters its number of beats, and “Line of Smoke” is a trail of stammering ambience that evades sharp delineation. Moreover, it seems that in each and every case the ultimate purpose of these dissident bombs is not so much to move toward a new, revolutionized scheme of things that would be an improvement on what came before, but merely to provide a ferociously stark portrayal of the underlying incoherence and disorder of all systems, both existing and possible, in much the same way that the poststructuralists sought to expose the self-contradictions of ideology and theory.
For White Suns, this would be a more realistic aim, since much of the weight of Totem comes from its uncomfortable sense of futility, from the apprehension that even protest is an expression of the order it claims to reject. In “Carrion,” Barry’s voice emerges out of the swirling grinder to lament, “The scavengers are circling/ My decay has drawn them in/ They are mocking and impatient/ Yet safely out of reach/[…]/ Let me give back all I ever stole.” This image of doing little more than feeding back into an establishment even when you’re striving to compromise it closes the album with lingering force, and in the end, the only other option available for the band is to purge themselves of their milieu and of systematization altogether, to watch clouds skim across the sky and “drift away as well,” and to “bleed out” the “elemental poison” that runs through their veins. And more than anything else, this is probably what Totem is: a furious purgative or ipecac that, if only for 40 minutes, will help us forget our own contrivance.
1. However, if you would like to hear speech that might possibly qualify as the linguistic complement of Totem, you are welcome to phone the following number: +41 78 912 2290.