Totem Skin – Still Waters Run Deep

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Label: Dog Knights Productions

Bandcamp: Link

It can be nice when something doesn’t meet your expectations. The opening minutes of this record had me expecting a half hour of blackened crust, reminding me as it did of some of Young And In The Way’s more caustic moments. But as the record progressed, this initial expectation proved to be wrong, and that was no bad thing. What we have here instead is a début album from this Swedish six-piece that, at different times, brings to mind all manner of modern hardcore and post-metal influences and styles, full of strong vocals, crushing guitars and memorable melodies, and ends up bring a very powerful record. The band’s Facebook describes them as hardcore, but that’s only part of the story. Even their further description of “a bunch of emopunks trying to play grind” doesn’t give the full picture, though it is a description I quite like and seemed more fitting to their earlier releases.

Before this review goes too far, I have to praise the artwork; it really caught my eye when Dog Knights Productions announced pre-orders for the record. It’s not just a pretty picture, but a damn good metaphor for the sound of the record; there is beauty, violence, death, nature, and that haunting hint of the apocalyptic “other” all present here. I’m genuinely excited to see how it looks when my 12″ arrives.

As for the music itself, it’s a remarkably strong début, especially considering the six-piece line-up only came together in March this year (though the band initially formed as a three-piece in 2012); and whilst some of the songs here appeared on previous EP releases, the versions here are much, much stronger than those earlier recordings. Opener Kargt Landskap is a real rager, giving the listener just under a minute’s calm before it all kicks in, taking in a mix of chaotic hardcore and more grind-influenced parts before building up to a slower climax. There’s great use of tension and feedback here, and the ending shouts (“you will forget everything/you will never wake up”) should make it clear what kind of album we’re dealing with, just in case the music somehow didn’t.

The rest of the album displays further song-writing talents, with the switches from the ultra-fast to the slow and gloomy and back again feeling totally natural and unforced. The first half is generally more raging, whilst the second features more tense, dynamic territories, though both these sides to the band are present throughout the entirety of the record. At points – such as the opening minute of At The Forest’s Edge – it’s reminiscent of Converge or similar Deathwish bands such as Birds In Row or Oathbreaker at their most raging; at others, it has all the heaviness and atmosphere of Neurosis or Cult Of Luna at their best. The opening minutes of Atrophy Of The Heart display a comparable talent for building up a song before letting the tension release in catharsis, as well as for knowing when to let a song breathe and create some space. It’s easy for music like this to become suffocating and far too overwhelming to the point where it’s not enjoyable, but Totem Skin avoid this trap; a superb production helps in this regard too.

And then there’s the final track. At 12 minutes long, it could so easily have fallen flat on its face, but instead it concludes the record perfectly. Four and a half minutes of dynamics and tension give way to some gentle bass work, over which a woman reads an apology to her lover, saying sorry for how she handled the news and fear of her imminent death. It’s the kind of thing that would be ripe for parody and satire in the wrong hands, but in the context of the album and with the music gently underpinning it, it works better than it has any right to, and sets the final two minutes up for a hair-raising end that proves that sometimes the most simple lyrics are the best. A version of it was on their first EP, but the one here is much, much better.

It’s perhaps not the most original album you’ll ever hear, but originality for its own sake is over-rated. It’s an exciting, dynamic record that achieves possibly that most important of things for any band playing music even vaguely connected to hardcore: it makes me want to see them live. Is there much higher praise than that?

Rating: 9/10

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