Genre: Drone/Power Electronics/Dark Ambient/Death Industrial
Sacrificial Totem is or was a project that I've been aware of for a few years now but was never able to find a link or physical copies to any of his releases, so I just gave up looking for a while. There's a few reasons for the lack of availability: one being that they were limited runs under 100 hand made (often under 50) and most of the rare links that were up were torched in the whole shutdown waves a little while back.
Another reason has to do with the activities the sole member "Exile" was involved in. Apparently the ethic and ideology of atavistic environmentalism shrouding Sacrificial Totem was no gimmick, from the label's 2012 newsletter update:
"The project ceased to exist in early 2006 when the sole creator behind Sacrificial Totem, Exile, was arrested, having been betrayed by former co-conspirators, as part of the FBI's "Operation Backfire" for his involvement in eco-sabotage arsons attributed to the "ELF". After serving over six years in federal prison, he was released earlier this year."
So yeah, I don't know how much is true but it appears the guy was serious. The update explains that the already limited presses of all Sacrificial Totem albums became even more rare after most were lost, stolen or destroyed in the aftermath of a studio raid. It wasn't until recently I stumbled upon a few obscure links to the records as well as some tracks up on soundcloud which renewed my interest in this hidden creature of the cascadian sprawl.
On to the actual music already! Sacrificial Totem is entirely instrumental and 95% electronic. Their sound is described by other reviewers (and the one label it was a part of) as shamanic/atavist ritual dark ambient or "dark ritual eletronics", but you'd be safe calling it cascadian-themed dark ambient/drone with some industrial or noise clouding the two. With this kind of description you'd expect it could be either an unlistenable clusterfuck or a monotonous and boring sulk but I'm quite happy to argue that the rituals on Hurqalya are executed exceedingly well, escaping both categories and are in fact engaging.
I'd describe the sound and structure as Fauna if injected with death industrial attitude, some horror atmospherics and creeping grit. The ceremonial cascadian ethos and atmosphere however is preserved and remains a subtle thread running throughout each track but distinguished from the north american black metal interpretation of this style; always refreshing and welcome thing I say.
Despite the nature of the tools in use the soundscape woven over this record does take on a very organic, somber, earthen tone only mired in a ancient horror. As if you were trespassing deeper into a tangled and ancient forest, the sounds on Hurqalyya to me seem more like vibes from hostile and feral wilderness on the cusp of dusk. It never becomes too loud while remaining intimidating and very clear.
Repeating, cycling whirring noise, synths (or more likely an MPC), metallic instruments, pedals and samples — oscillating humming, declining then erupting only to decay and be repurposed. The huge orbit of the builds here and their raw, undulating nature make the ritual part of all this is very clear. Each track bleeds into the next forming a massive and oppressive series of ceremonial waves or chapters, reinforcing the spellbinding quality of Sacrificial Totem exponentially.
Simply marked in roman numerals each 'ritual' while connected is distinct, relying on repetition and growth within those cycles to reach enormous peaks. The first one from the outset is a warbled moan that has a very ominous presence. The deviations from this come halfway through, interruptions in the form of hazy, digitized bell-like notes that send the bends into the background temporarily. Eventually this transforms into an entirely different entity, more horrific, a clear revolving hum regulating the trance beset upon you by the shifting static and pitches; a wall of synth gathering behind everything. The descent is so gradual you barely realize it's happening as the tone becomes subdued and contemplative.
This first ritual is far more of a shamanic or transcendental atmosphere then some later rituals which bare a heavier cascadian tone. Other moments continue that meditative, very dreamy feeling such as the rising pulses halfway through "II" where the flow and static state of this section reminds me of The Angelic Process or Wreck And Reference when at rest, just following a track. The second ritual is far more placid compared to the previous one, disturbed at first only by looped samples of what sounds like a heavily delay/reverb swamped clean riff, chimes, clacking metal and wood.
Tones rise coloured by sharp echoes and the pulses build in the cavernous atmosphere coming together once again extraordinarily well. Everything begins to fall into it's place and not long after that there's a change. Actually this track has a good section where you get a feel for the type of evolution the sounds and rhythms go through on some of Exile's work. At around the 11 minute mark this build begins amongst ringing clanging bells (like a warning) and distant industrial quakes, and eventually ruptures with a very mid-east flavored tribal bass beat; it's soft and works well in the ritualistic haze that has been constructed thus far.
Sacrificial Totem does this well, almost bordering on some kind of Clams Casino-esque "cloud rap" atmospherics but never reaching a crossover that drastic. It melts away before "III" begins and wipes the slate, a track that uses the first 10 minutes to construct a rising wall of spectral static. It is oceanic and as the build hits its first incline we again hear the use of cold Wreck And Reference MPC tones, sustained and rising with the rumble and skips in the background. A satisfying example of their sound's beastial progression. Eventually the sound is twisted to a breaking point and then dropped to near silence, only to be brought back but stripped bare as a bleating hum. Like a horn being blasted intermittently. as soft keys drift around each wail. This is a great section of the track and leaves you ready "IV", it's serious and eerie and a little relaxing at the same time.
Now I haven't sat through all his records yet so I don't have a grasp on how much his sound changes between records, but Hurqalya has that strange property of residing in a very inaccessible genre yet producing material that I find easy to be immersed in. The final track "IV" is the first material I heard from Sacrificial Totem and the one ritual that drew me in much quicker than I thought possible with this genre. Have a listen:
The final track is certainly the most captivating part of Hurqalya for me ("III" is quite close I must say). It's much like a shamanic ritual being performed in an increasingly violent electrical storm, weathering it through ceremonial worship. It's pretty much split in almost four equal segments of which all are crushing: the first half leads in with mesmerizing electrical pulses and an occilating hum that sets the rhythm into hypnosis mode (much like a section found in track two). It's gripping.
Just as ingredients are added and things are becoming crowded this gives way to a calm like passing into the eye, as you near the edges the raging calamity can be heard in the periphery. The rhythm left by the last section carries on but through a different filter, punctuated with piercing industrial shocks and a build in pulses of drowned shamanic chant-like harmonies. Any of you remember the fire temple in LOZ:OOT, the whole banned islamic chant deal? That's kind of the tone this sample gives off but more ominous, far slower and buried. By the 12 minute mark it is an all consuming trance of collapsing distortion and looping darkness, pulling you under over and over.
It is a gradual decay from there as we enter a third phase. The ritual synth morphs and the crackling, muffled throbs grow slower and more erratic as it's choked right to the end of the track, grinding painfully with each rotation like a boulder being ground into a mountainside. It becomes more cohesive by that point, spiking and groaning loudly before fading into a final dark acoustic melody over minor percussion which abruptly ends.
Sacrificial Totem bring something interesting and worthy of listening to for those who are adventurous, or enjoy something deeply ritualistic with a serious ideology behind it that manages to break a few crutches. It's a steep one to work up to what with the track lengths and comparative minimalistic approach to what I usually post. Don't let the pretentious sounding eco-centric, ritual dark ambient dominant nature of this project foul your impression of it before hearing it. The amalgamation of genres here obviously creates a decent bar for entry immediately but the intoxicating ancient whirl buttressed by old growth rot should be given a chance. Sacrificial Totem steers this intense instrumental vortex expertly.
Those of you who enjoy power electronics like Blue Sabbath Black Cheer, strange heavy stuff like the Body or Terra Tenabrosa, ambient shit like Final or Lustmord, or blackened ambience like Fauna might want to check this out. If you like what you hear then I dunno. These are virtually impossible to find in physical form, however the newsletter Katabatik sent out mentioned having found a few copies of the first and last record in storage. The price is pretty steep and if you want to inquire email them. I have no idea if there are any left.
Follow Katabatik Metacommunications and keep an eye out for info on whatever the fuck Exile is planning to do now that he's free.