German experimental music unit Individual Totem (a.k.a. Bernrd Madl and Mathias Knopp) have been fusing dark soundscapes and heavy industrial beats for over two decades now, but somehow managed to stay just under my radar during most of that time. After a few indie releases in the '90s, new material from the band became fairly scarce again, before they resurfaced with the full-length album Mothfly in 2007. That release included memorable tracks like “WWW,” which had once surfaced as a single many years earlier only to abruptly vanish from the scene. A quick listen to that record calls to mind iconic acts like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly or Velvet Acid Christ, but with roots in earlier electronic pioneers like Tangerine Dream (whose music is familiar to fans of '80s horror movies like Near Dark and The Keep). The combination of those influences supports a very cinematic thread of dark fantasy storytelling, and that aspect becomes the main focus of their latest album Kyria 13, which like its predecessor emerges after a lengthy hiatus.
An ambitious concept album with a dark fantasy theme, Kyria 13 tells the story of the Croxxers, a council of Jedi-like knights with mystical powers who must rally their forces to defend the the title world. Their foes in this dark saga are the ominous-sounding “Mindworms,” whose evil influence peaks with an event called “The Great Mistake,” which may spell doom for the entire planet. While this high-concept approach may call to mind the sprawling prog-rock epics of the '70s, for me it more closely resembles a story from the pages of Heavy Metal magazine, with the same open-ended, sensual surrealism, albeit in musical form. While the tale is told in a fairly loose way, and the tracks themselves stand up well individually, you can still feel a distinct story structure if you absorb the album in a non-stop session.
The opening track “Croxxers” sets up the world we're about to enter in the form of a distress-call transmission, before kicking in an old-school EDM pattern; in a cool touch, Madl's multi-tracked vocals are recorded in both English and German. The threat is established with the chilling dark synth growls and thunderous bass line of “Lost Souls,” and ghostly high-pitch patterns and overlapping, cavernous vocals shape “The Great Mistake” into a kind of apocalyptic history lesson. Warm, ceremonial chords set the mood for “Council of the Wise,” conjuring the image of a secret meeting place, as pitch-shifted, alien voices filling the sound space. The tone becomes intensely somber in “Go to War,” with Madl's declaration “This is the time to forget/Whatever you feel for me” accompanied by acoustic guitar and backing synth strings before the introduction of marching snare drums.
Our antagonist is introduced in the frightening industrial noise explosion of “Mindworms,” which gives way to the album's best slamming heavy-beat sequence, and the shouted line “Get out of my head!” is simple but effective. The intensity lightens temporarily for the cloudy synth washes of “Bluesky,” a moody and percussive piece that seems to portray the passing of the Croxxer legacy to a new generation; that path continues into darkness with the lumbering, stuttering down-tempo crawl of “No Pressure,” punctuated by shrill blasts of modulated noise. The noises climb skyward for the excellent “Astral,” which for me represents the band's best balance of old and new electro styles – its room-shaking staccato bass line and soaring cosmic synth chords sound like a fusion of Skinny Puppy and Tangerine Dream. To reveal the content of the ambient “Wintermute” would give away the outcome of the story, but suffice to say it's a suitably cinematic coda, and has its share of surprises.
While none of these tracks break new ground in terms of songwriting – the structures and lyrics are very simple, lending themselves to a more ritualistic vibe – Kyria 13 is quite effective as an immersive experience. Each track in itself only provides a small hint of the bigger picture, and we only get a few moments of purely club-friendly EBM, but taken as a whole (preferably with the lights out), this record will ease you into a strange and haunted world while keeping your pulse high at the same time. I'm looking forward to visiting Individual Totem's universe again... and hoping it won't be another seven years before they offer their next invitation.
Here's the first chapter from the chronicles of Kyria 13, in the form of the opening track “Croxxers”...