Totem is a bleak, terrifying set, even (or especially) when it’s ominously quiet.
Five minutes into White Suns’ third album, 2014’s Totem, the scalding-hot guitar blasts power down and the band reaches some sort of respite. There’s a sickly hum, still a scattered roar or two, and -- during the second track, “Prostrate” -- what sounds somewhat like an amplifier being overheated as a prickly animal carcass is dragged indiscriminately across a fretboard. “Thoughts drain away,” vocalist Kevin Barry states, his voice emotionless and distant. Totem -- the follow-up to 2012’s Sinews, an album that pummeled and screamed its way onto a list of my favorite noise-rock records of that year -- is a bleak, terrifying set, even (or especially) when it’s ominously quiet.
In fact, it’s the spaces between the noise furies that distinguish Totem, an album that’s shiftier and more scattered in approach, if not mood, than its predecessor. The formless “Fossil Record” slides its way into a drone cycle of feedback lurches and cymbal hits. “Line of Smoke” (song title imagery always on point) is a jumble of detuned squeals and amplified drum experiments, without the punishing payoff the song threatens to contain.
When the trio does rev up, the onslaught is characteristically immense: from its six opening drum thwacks, “Clairvoyant” is an experiment in letting every instrument scream at once, and Barry’s vocals are made all the more impressive by the fact that he does not have a typical heavy metal roar. He compensates adequately with deranged spirit: “My guide’s face is made of mirrors! / My guide’s face looks like my father’s!” he shouts during a break in that track’s cacophony, and the blood-and-bile delivery bubbles up from what is otherwise a fairly average voice. Elsewhere, on the squealing, staggered thrust of “Cathexis”, he stretches each syllable out with hellish aplomb: “My strength is finite / I try to fill the cracks / With an astral substance / Culled from the holy dance.” It’s punishing stuff, and though the Brooklyn act doesn’t always lock into the sort of grooves that justify its lengthy drifts (closer “Carrion” grows especially tiresome over the course of its seven pulsing minutes), Totem never loses sight of its hellish mission statement: subverting the lines between noise-rock, metal, and the electronic avant-garde with aural assaults that render those distinctions irrelevant.