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(72.24, ‘Runaway Totem’)
TRACK LIST: 1. Alle Sorgenti Di Kronos 24.28 2. Aevum 21.38 3. Phi-Ur 26.20 LINEUP: Cahal De Betel – vocals; guitars; keyboards Tipheret – drums, percussion, gamelan; keyboards, voice Dauno Giuseppe Buttiglione – bass Issirias Moira Dusatti – vocals Hor-Douaty – cover and inside art With: Mirko Fedrotti – vibraphone Nadia Bortolamedi – clarinet Anna Boschi – flute
Prolusion. Formed in 1988 by Roberto Gottardi (aka Cahal de Betel) and Rene Modena (aka Mimir de Bennu) in the north-eastern Italian town of Riva del Garda, RUNAWAY TOTEM are anything but a typical rock band – members are called by the name ‘elements’, and the whole output of the band is based on esoteric concepts. On account of this peculiar concept, Runaway Totem have never recorded an album with the same lineup: founder Cahal de Betel has been the only constant feature, while drummer Germano Morghen(aka Tipheret) has been with the band since their second album, “Zed”. “Manu Menes”, the band’s seventh album (subtitled “L’Intelligenza Cosmica”, or cosmic intelligence), sees the return of bassist and original member Giuseppe “Dauno” Buttiglione, who left the band after the release of their debut album to found Universal Totem Orchestra. Runaway Totem’s third, fourth and fifth albums make up the “Cicli Cosmici” trilogy, while “Esameron” and “Manu Menes” are part of a new project called “4 Elementi 5”, based on the ancient science of numerology.
Analysis. In what might be seen like an interesting coincidence, the cover of “Manu Menes” depicts a sort of globe made of lava – a substance that also goes by the name of magma. Indeed, the Magma best known to progressive rock fans are the name that has been most often mentioned by the various reviewers of Runaway Totem’s albums. This, however, does not imply that the band deserve the tag of ‘poor man’s Magma’ that some have attached to them, since their music does possess its own individual character, and their albums are informed by ancient doctrines that have very little in common with the French band’s sci-fi-inspired world of Kobaia. This album in particular delves deep into such sources as a collection of ‘alchemical sonnets’ by a 17th-century Italian scholar, as well as ancient Hindu sacred texts (Manu being the name of the ancestor of mankind in Hindu mythology). As to the musical aspect, the strong Zeuhl and RIO imprint are tempered by the unmistakable influence of the long-standing Italian musical tradition, especially opera and Gregorian chant. It should already be quite clear that “Manu Menes” is not for the faint-hearted. The combination of esoteric content, theatrical vocals, and music that veers from the disturbing, arch-Gothic atmospheres of opener Alle Sorgenti Di Kronos to the free-jazz suggestions of the third part of album closer Phi-Ur makes for a wild ride; besides, the album’s running time of over 70 minutes may require some occasional use of the pause button in order to avoid aural overload. The three tracks featured on the album all exceed 20 minutes in length, the second and third divided in movements. Repeated listens will slowly unfold the distinctive character of each composition, as well as the eerie, mysterious aura they share. In keeping with the band’s eclecticism, there is little (if anything) in album opener Alle Sorgenti Di Kronos that might remind the listener of Magma. Any comparisons should rather be drawn with bands like Univers Zero or Thinking Plague, or even with legendary Italian Seventies outfit Jacula – particularly in the use of emphatically recited vocals imparting a genuinely ominous feel to the music. The track opens with the sound of tolling bells (a bit of a clich? perhaps, but convincing none the less), slowly fading away to silence; then slow, sparse piano chords enter over faint percussive sounds, growing higher-pitched, crashing and discordant. The overall effect hints more at contemporary academic music than rock, with a strong cinematic feel. When the (male) vocals make their first appearance, it is with the solemn yet forceful tone of a medieval town crier, announcing the birth of the ‘prodigious child’, Manu Menes. Ominous keyboards then introduce the intense, almost overwrought vocals of Issirias Moira Dusatti; after that, the track turns more experimental, while retaining its darkly rarefied atmosphere, occasionally punctuated by the beautiful yet disquieting notes of a clarinet. The Magma references emerge in the central track of the album, the two-part Aevum (the shortest item at slightly over 21 minutes). Compared to the previous piece, the instrumentation is richer and more intricate, the drums taking the lead in occasionally explosive manner, aided and abetted by Dauno’s ‘telluric’ bass. With the strong operatic flavour of both Cahal de Betel’s and Issirias’ vocals, high-powered drumming and haunting tapestry of keyboards, the track comes across as a sort of controlled chaos in the first half, while the second half is a distinctly rockier, exhilarating cavalcade enhanced by some fine guitar work and a powerfully choral feel. Interestingly, one of the vocal interludes sees Cahal chanting names of Hindu deities, with the music following suit in its noticeable Eastern inspiration. In the third (and longest track), Phi-Ur, the distinctive sound of the vibraphone takes centre stage, contributing to the avant-garde feel of the whole piece. Eerie, ambient-like passages are still featured, but as a whole the music is more jagged, with asymmetrical rhythms and, at times, a distinct sense of tension. The Eastern influences evidenced in the previous track come back with a vengeance, and some parts could pass as religious chants – which in a way they are, as the lyrics are taken from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most revered of Hindu sacred texts. This is undoubtedly the most demanding track on the album, and, especially in its second half, it drags on a bit – perhaps it would have been a good idea to cut it somewhat shorter to avoid the onset of listener weariness. In spite of its somewhat daunting nature, “Manu Menes” is a fascinating album that should be particularly appealing to those with a keen interest in the arcane, as well as a penchant for intellectually engaging music. Obviously targeted to a niche audience, it is a fitting display for the finely crafted work of an outfit whose artistic ambitions exceed those of ‘ordinary’ progressive rock bands.
Conclusion. On account of its peculiar structure, not to mention its length, “Manu Menes” is an album to be approached with caution. While fans of Zeuhl and RIO / Avant-Prog are very likely to be impressed, those looking for a more conventional approach are equally likely to be scared away right from the opening notes. At any rate, Runaway Totem are definitely one of the most distinctive outfits on the Italian musical scene, constantly searching for new ways to express the intriguing concepts behind their music. Surely an acquired taste, but also one that deserves more recognition.
RB=Raffaella Berry: January 12, 2010
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