The Brainfeeder debut for one of the most exciting people in electronic music.

Label: Brainfeeder

Rating: 8

The recent resurgence of female ‘beatsmiths’ in the contemporary music scene is easily one of the high points of the last few years. Until recently, it felt like electronic music by women has been defined as either ‘Before Björk’ or ‘After Björk’. Though she is undoubtedly a pioneer and an influence on many musicians, male and female, we have since been emphatically reminded that not everything in this genre has to sound like her work to be great. Grimes hypnotized us with her brand of creepy, twisted-pitch pop on ‘Visions’. Laurel Halo created dizzying soundscapes with ‘Quarantine’. Julia Holter and Julianna Barwick have woven more ethereal (and at time Gregorian) elements into their work. The list goes on.

Enter Christina McGeehan a.k.a. RYAT. An accomplished jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, ‘Totem’ is RYAT’s debut for Brainfeeder. She already has two other releases under her belt. Out of all the albums in recent memory that claim to be “avant-garde”, ‘Totem’ is one of the few that actually feels that way. The album, over the course of 11 songs, fuses together elements of Baroque, jazz and many world music traditions with stuttering electronica. It’s a patchy but rich tapestry of sounds whose strange shape bewitches you. Just when you try to put into one frame, it changes shape. It’s very mercurial and surrealist in that sense, which is fitting of an album where every track embodies a different ‘spirit animal’ (i.e. a totem) and the lessons we can learn from each. It is also not exactly what you would expect from an artist on the Brainfeeder roster, as it is a far cry from the wonky, broken-beat, instrumental hip hop that Flying Lotus has made his signature. But it’s a welcome change.

Opener ‘Windcurve’ is an apt introduction to the album, inviting you in with sweeping strings and a chorus of what sound like angels. Eventually RYAT’s piercing voice comes to the forefront and stretches out, effortlessly nimble and supple. However the mood soon goes from ethereal to tense when RYAT’s voice is suddenly ambushed by glitchy electronica. She seemingly engages in a fight with it, each fracturing the other. The track’s schizophrenia is incredibly disconcerting. ‘Howl’, the album’s first single, is buoyed by a swelling, whirring synth, while syncopated drums pop over the top, seemingly in search of something. You can actually imagine a lone wolf venturing from its pack in search of its own path on this one whilst following the only thing it knows, the moon. Elsewhere, ‘Humming Bird’ and ‘Invisibility Cage’ are achingly beautiful tracks thanks to what sounds like an erhu (Chinese violin). The rich sound vibrates much like the wings of a small bird just trying to stay afloat. The constant shifting between electronic and organic instrumentation as the lead instrument emphasises how important sound timbre is in conveying a story or an emotion in music. Each sound has a different shape, even ones that are playing the same note. It is a very textured album and it compels you to follow along and trace the bumps and dips. Think of it like musical Braille.

However, perhaps the most beautiful instrument on the album is RYAT’s voice, which will no doubt attract Björk comparisons, especially when she adopts a fiercely jazzy growl (see the explosive ‘Owl’). It also has shades of PJ Harvey in places too when it becomes wiry and stretched. I guess this is what is impressive about her voice; not only does she display a sizeable note range, but also a tone range, which again comes back to the idea of how textured the album is. RYAT has said previously that she doesn’t like to structure music where the music merely follows a singer’s lead (no doubt thanks to the improvisational nature of her jazz training). And while she does indeed treat her voice as another instrument in her arsenal, nothing can stop it from standing out.

All in all, Flying Lotus was clearly onto a good thing when he signed RYAT to his inescapable label. ‘Totem’ is a beautifully fractured shape-shifter, which implodes and explodes in on itself repeatedly, in its own cycle of creation and destruction. It seems to reflect the ever-changing shapes of our own psyches and suggests that we all have an eternal puzzle that we all need to solve for ourselves with guidance from our own “spirit animal”. RYAT is truly a revelation and no doubt she has followed her spirit animal to this point. I can’t wait to see where it takes her.