Totimoshi, Avenger: Time Spent in Paradise

As they approach 15 years of existence in 2012, hard-touring Los Angeles trio Totimoshi return to the heavy crunch of their earlier albums on their sixth full-length, Avenger. 2008’s Milagrosa – produced by Helmet’s Page Hamilton and Toshi Kasai (the Melvins, Shrinebuilder) and released on Volcom – found Totimoshi heading in a more melodic direction, and while Avenger, which is out on forward-thinking underground imprint At a Loss Recordings, keeps some of that complexity, guitarist/vocalist Tony Aguilar’s tone is beefier and the three extra years of road-time he and bassist/backing vocalist Meg Castellanos have put in with drummer Chris Fugitt (who debuted with the band on Milagrosa) shows in the fluidity of their arrangements. Much of Avenger, which was produced by Kasai alone, traffics in the thoughtful and rhythmic melancholy for which Totimoshi have become most known, but the band are adventurous as ever as well, pushing forward into more open-toned sprawl here and there and going as far as to include guest appearances from Dale Crover (the Melvins, Shrinebuilder), Brent Hinds (Mastodon), and Scott Kelly (Neurosis).

The latter two show up on the stylistically out-there closer “Waning Divine,” which is Totimoshi’s most experimental excursion to date, trading in the comparatively straightforward and almost punk-ish drive of earlier cuts like the opening title-track (which follows a brief intro) or its chorus-centric follow up, “The Foot,” for a solid six-and-a-half-minute build capped by a solo from Hinds that’s well placed as the payoff for the whole of Avenger. All told, the record is just 42 minutes, but in that time, Totimoshi manage to work in a variety of moods. The aforementioned “Avenger” is about as pure as Melvins-worship can get (the two bands have toured together extensively over the years, and Aguilar techs for Buzz Osborne, so it’s an influence they come by honestly), and as Aguilar delivers the lines, “I have punch/I have kick/I will slash and wear your skin/I will teach you not to look at me” and threatens a feast of hemlock tea and strychnine meat in his characteristic snarl, the aggression is well met by his guitar work, Castellanos’ bass and Fugitt’s drumming. Immediately, Avenger presents the intensity of Totimoshi at their best – which is perhaps the element most absent from Milagrosa and the source of any comparison to the band’s older material – and from there, the band is able to capitalize on that momentum however they see fit.

Over the years, Aguilar has managed to turn his aforementioned snarl into a bona fide melodic approach, and one of the most effective aspects of Avenger is the balance it strikes between songwriting and its wheels-about-to-come-off feel. Fugitt is most at home in that element of Totimoshi’s sound – his fills on “The Fool” feel as though they could completely undo the song at any moment, but he’s never out of control. That song also shows the band’s grown capacity for melody and structure both in and out of its layered chorus, which sets up the punkish cabaret stomp of “Mainline” all the more effectively. Commencing with Avenger’s dirtiest riff and drunken bluesy sway, it moves into a solo to match, but then Fugitt steps it up on the drums and the half-minute delivers the title line with handclaps and one of Avenger’s most memorable flashes. “Calling all Curs” begins with Castellanos’ considerably-toned lead in and jams out a solid riff as the album’s only instrumental, but in the context of the record as a whole, it’s hard to see it as more than a cool groove and a stepping stone to side A closer “Rose.”

It’s among the shorter tracks at 3:52 (only the intro and “Calling all Curs” take less time), and “Waning Divine” has the high-profile guest spots, but there’s no question that “Rose” is Avenger’s crowning achievement. Aguilar has said it’s “about fucking,” and sure enough, it’s sex in the classic Hendrixian fashion, finding its climax in its last minute build, the interplay of Aguilar and Castellanos on vocals brilliantly backed by Fugitt’s snare making the scenario complete. It’s a hallmark of Totimoshi’s catalog that each album has a definitive standout, and “Rose” is it for Avenger, but as the record is only half over, Totimoshi use the space on side B to get more adventurous, beginning with the freakout guitar work on the heavily-percussed “Opus” (I think that’s where the Crover guest appearance is, but don’t have confirmation of that at this point). They’re toying with desert rock’s echoes here, transitioning from a call and response between the drums and guitar in the chorus to the extended solo that feels as though it could consume the whole rest of the track but ultimately doesn’t, giving way to melodic vocals that transition smoothly into the more subdued “Leaves.” Totimoshi have always borrowed from the dirtier end of ‘90s noise, and “Leaves” maintains that, but the reverb on the guitar early in the song and the laid back vocals adds a chic moodiness that Avenger has thus far left untouched, flowing into a more angular second half that reminds of the opening duo and sounds like it could’ve been on a more realized version of 2002’s excellent Monoli.

“Snag” creeps open with a near-waltz guitar-led rhythm and unfolds into an engaging chorus. Like many of Avenger’s tracks, it’s about playing one side of Totimoshi’s sound off another. Songs do this, then they do that, but there’s always movement within them, and so sometimes it’s harder to get a handle on what the band is trying to accomplish on a first listen. With “Snag,” it’s not so much a dip in quality – because there isn’t one – as it is a shift in methodology. Fugitt is charged with keeping the song grounded, and he does so well, punctuating Aguilar’s noisy solo with consistent bass drumming that subtly both opens and closes. There are about 30 seconds of silence before “Waning Divine” starts, which is a surprising move given how much emphasis Totimoshi put on momentum otherwise on Avenger, but once the track actually begins – instant swirl – it’s clear why they would want it separate and standing apart from the other material. Both in terms of its structure and execution, it’s different from everything else on the album, Aguilar and Scott Kelly’s vocals meshing together following a chugging instrumental build that only gets larger as the verses play out. If “Waning Divine” has anything in common with the rest of Avenger, it’s that the guitar lead acts as the apex of the song, only this time it’s Brent Hinds providing the fleetness of finger, concluding the album with a performance that’s equal parts surprising and stellar.

The temptation with a band like Totimoshi, who seem to release album after album of high-quality songs and tour ceaselessly to support them, is to hope loudly that this is the record that “gets them their due,” whatever that means. That’s not to say Avenger isn’t a more than respectable outing or that Totimoshi, over the course of their studio work and extensive touring, hasn’t grown into one of the heavy undergrounds most individual bands, just that when you accomplish all that and earn a position near the fore of your creative generation, the admiration of your peers, critics and fans – however underappreciated your records still might be in relation to how good they are – I’m not sure what’s left. Headlining, I guess, and Avenger is already letting Totimoshi do that too on their latest tour, so there you go. They’ve always been a band rooted in appealing to a certain kind of listener, and Avenger is no different in its marriage of contradictions. It’s dissonant but melodic, dirty and clean, noisy but engaging, structured but open. If there’s a word to encompass the existence these varied ideas within a singular space that’s better fitting than the name of the band, I don’t know what it is, so I’ll just say that. It’s Totimoshi.

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