Individual Totem have always been a band for serious heads in the industrial game. I’m not trying to claim that they somehow represent a pure or outlandish mode of the genre which is underrepresented, or that some perverse obstinance keeps them in the realm of the “cult band”, but for whatever reason, they’re never going to be one of those acts who get foisted on dancefloors by lowest common denominator DJs (at least on this side of the Atlantic), and they’ve never traded in sounds or styles which are at the peak of their stock. Instead, they’re the sort of group you’ll notice being mentioned if you lurk on forums or stick around in clubs as the DJs are packing up long enough. “Y’know who’s underrated?” some crusty rec.music.industrial punter will say after their sixth cider or when a thread’s completely devolved into the old “what is industrial?” dead-end. “Individual Totem.” And they’re entirely right. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Kyria 13 contains both Individual Totem’s most idiosyncratic moments as well as some of their most immediate music, making it one of 2013’s most pleasant surprises.
This time out, Bernrd Madl and Jürgen Moßgraber offer up a suite of tracks centered around the end-times of the titular alien planet, with various social and religious factions each desperately competing for control over the world’s best hope for survival. For a record with such a grandiose and complex narrative premise, Kyria 13 is incredibly immediate and listenable. Far from being one of those “give it some time” high concept records, I found myself queuing it up again and again over the past few days, not because I wanted to “let it sink in”, but simply because the tracks themselves had made an impression. Did the album’s plotline have a role in that? Probably, but given that it’s hard to tease out the details without the press release, I’d say that Individual Totem’s commitment to the conceit sells Kyria 13 to the discerning listener more than the content of that conceit itself. Being willing to give each moment in a sweeping and convoluted narrative like this its own space, aesthetics, and motifs and still delivering tunes is no small task, but it’s that sort of dedication to album-craft which makes it easy to forgive Individual Totem’s decade long absences.
All of the hallmarks of the electro-industrial genre have always been fair play the German duo – distorted vocals, tight and squelchy leads, atmospheric pads – and while those core elements have remained over the course of their career, they’ve never seemed to take them as givens. The goals and compositional structures of each IT track or album take precedence, from the smooth alien programming of S.E.T.I. to Mothfly‘s more erratic moves, flitting from aggressive percussive pummeling to mopey breaks on a dime. Truth be told, Kyria 13 could be seen as a synthesis of Mothfly‘s range, the extreme fringes of which sometimes made it feel disjointed (a view not dissuaded by rumours that that record was the product of hurried sessions abandoned in the late 90s pressed into release a decade later) and S.E.T.I.‘s high-concept angle. The transitions between modes and moods feel much smoother on Kyria 13, no small challenge when the sounds of individual songs are considered.
“The Great Mistake” feels anthemic, but strictly on the band’s own terms, if that makes sense. While made of all of the aforementioned core elements, they’re pressed into service in a way which structurally feels more like a cross between synthpop and rock musical excess than the usual murky electro-industrial introspection. Other elements, namely different vocal patches, are plugged in and out at rapid speed to serve tracks’ immediate needs, whether those be a blend of religious bravado and desperation on “Croxxers”, or a variety of reflective and philosophical viewpoints on “Council Of The Wise” and the majestic “Astral.” I suppose that mind.in.a.box’s devotion to both high-concept albums and using a variety of vocal and instrumental palettes isn’t an inaccurate point of comparison, but it seems unfair to draw such parallels when Kyria 13 is so obviously the product of a band with the utmost faith in their own compass.
I found myself quickly and surely falling for Kyria 13, and I have a feeling that if you’ve been willing to read seven hundred words of me gushing over it, you probably will too. If you’re not hanging around this neck of the woods for huge club joints or the next big thing, if you’re into high concept science fiction electro-industrial, or if you’re just willing to put your trust in some old hands who’ve circled round our planet for another rare turn, Individual Totem have just delivered you a stunner. Highly recommended.