RYAT – Totem (Brainfeeder/ June 4 2012)
By Maya K
The first release by RYAT on Brainfeeder, her follow-up to 2010’s Avant Gold, is a concept record, which, despite its disparate influences and styles, coheres beautifully to create an abstract and fresh sound. Since her relocation to Los Angeles from Philadelphia, RYAT’s increasing awareness of her natural surroundings influenced a sound that, while electronic, is soulful and organic. Inspired by unexpected visits from animals, each track on Totem represents a different spirit animal, brought to sonic life by RYAT’s gracefully processed but nevertheless authentic and emotive vocals. The layered, incomprehensible vocals of titular track ‘Totem’ are simultaneously warm and haunting, evoking a nocturnal visit from shadows of creatures unknown.
Comparisons to Bjork will be inevitable, but RYAT’s influences range from modern classical to avant-indie and LA big beat. Her sweet and unnerving timbre is looped and reverberated, chopped and compressed into something urgent and impassioned. On ‘Footless’, RYAT gives her voice free rein to soar above the syncopated beats and guitar hooks, and sonically evoke the freedom of flight.
As for the beats, the influence clearly lies with the LA beat scene of which RYAT is now an established member, having been picked up by Flying Lotus‘s inimitable Brainfeeder imprint, home to such electronic innovators as Lorn, Lapalux and FlyLo himself, all of whom share RYAT’s richly textured approach to sound design. RYAT eschews predictable percussion for the complex, disheveled rhythms that give tracks like ‘Seahorse’ their abstract, mimetic quality.
Then there’s the classical instrumentation: ‘Hummingbird’ opens with over a minute of strings, followed by those haunting vocals, a high-pitched arp, and abstract, intricate percussion. ‘Invisibly Ours’, one of the album’s standouts, is all towering vocals and Radiohead-esque guitar lines, while ‘Howl’, perhaps the album’s most conventional track in terms of structure, marries gritty beats with RYAT’s spiraling voice.
RYAT’s experimental time changes, otherworldly synths and abstract beats combine to create an intense, personal and wildly diverse album whose disregard for genre categorization – ‘Object Mob’ is an electronic free-jazz track imbued with emotion and fire – never detracts from the sense of a whole, cohesive record. Yet despite its contradictions, Totem is half in this world and half in the world of the spirits, at once earthly and ethereal, both tangible and abstract – it is polished and perfectly sequenced.
To break the rules, you have to know them inside out, and RYAT’s classical prowess enables her to disregard conventional time signatures, generic constraints and predictable song structures. It’s tempting to reduce RYAT to a Bjork for the FlyLo era, but with Totem, she has created a truly avant-garde aesthetic that’s all her own.