Brainfeeder’s newest signing is a colossus behind the boards and she’s got a mean Björk-ian snarl. Los Angeles’ Christina Ryat brings art school introversion to the already outcast mold of the Flying Lotus-led LA beat weirdo enclave. On paper, it might sound a little too on the nose, but Ryat’s Brainfeeder allegiances feel like something that found her and not the other way around. The grid-chewed beat sketches and stuttering organic percussion loops that shamble manically through her productions feel right at home in LA, sure. But Ryat’s writhing, soar-throated alto and chopped, gunmetal chamber pop aesthetic sound more like a beefy Julia Holter with all the avant tendencies sharpened into treacherous dagger points.
Totem is difficult. It wears its avant leanings on its sleeve. Each track is a barefooted trek through craggy, discombobulating terrain, but there’s staggering beauty here and an aggressively unique voice at the helm that makes the record worth a trip. The “voice” part is both literal and figurative. Ryat’s full-throated, fragile-yet-thorny vocals are enough of a draw and guiding hand on their own to make the otherwise challenging arrangements pliable enough to wander. Totem pieces together a vibrant collection of organic instruments (harps, piano, strings, guitar, standup bass) before manipulating them into mutilated, looping hyper-electronic mutations over frantic, bony percussion.
The record is at its best when it takes its time searching for a track’s core and building toward small revelations with Ryat’s scrawny voice groping for intricacies, such as on “Owl” or “Hummingbird”/”Footless”. “Hummingbird” is a nice little electro chamber pop number with some heavy, smokey piano chords and cavernous strings, followed by the climatic entrance of a stomping, hollowed out drum loop. The track doesn’t stop as it moves headlong into “Footless”. The cut locks into a rising, swaggering woodblock rhythm, exfoliating sun-touched textures writhing along with Ryat’s meditative vocal. And the runny, melted-bronze guitar melody that closes out the track is just magnificent. “Owl” is alternately a twisty-turny kind of journey. It starts as a lurching, blooping Teebs-esque hip-hop track, stop-starting into milky strings and a colossal choir sample before finally locking into an anthemic, downhill groove. Then that stops and the things start over again, heading off in a few more directions.
Elsewhere, you get tracks like “Invisibly Ours,” a plush guitar-driven number that culminates with another upward climbing beat, “Object Mob,” which starts as a mouthy, spidery jazz cut before ending with some apocalyptic string samples and a furious drum’n’bass loop, and “Ratz,” a minimal and formless nebula that grabs at the same divergent paths as “Owl”. The only real misstep is “Seahorse,” but it’s a good summation of where Ryat’s instrumental tendencies can sometimes get away from her. She’s an excellent producer, but on “Seahorse” without much vocal encouragement the production devolves into some directionless wandering and ends without any real conclusive details to speak of.
Totem is a challenging listen, but it’s one of the most creative and exciting debuts I’ve heard all year. There’s a lot here like “Hummingbird” and “Footless” that speaks to potential that is only just being realized. It’s not difficult to see what directions Ryat should take moving forward. Her eccentricities are a virtue. It’s only a matter of focusing what’s already here. Larger success is only incremental steps away for the Los Angeles artist.