This singular album was released back in February 2020 right before the pandemic upended everything, so I sadly never got around to writing about it. I am attempting to right that wrong now, however, as this inscrutable and anonymous Texas duo is the most consistently fascinating psych project around and this album has been in fairly heavy rotation for me since it came out. Granted, "consistently fascinating" is not quite the same thing as "consistently great," but Totemist is an unusually accessible release for the creepily costumed pair, as this vinyl debut ostensibly "marks a new direction" for the project. That mostly just means that these "fourth world post-colonial cultural cannibalists" wrote a more melodic and focused batch of songs than usual and took a break from "the oppressively lo-fi sound" of their previous tapes. Happily. all of those changes suit the band quite well, but Ak'Chamel still basically sound like a haunted, shambling pile of Sun City Girls and Sublime Frequencies albums that has been possessed by the spirit of an ancient shaman. Which, of course, is exactly how I would want them to sound.
It is impossible to speculate on the identity of Ak'Chamel without instantly thinking of the Bishop brothers, as Totemist feels like a perfect blend of Sir Richard's Eastern-influenced guitar virtuosity and the warped vision and dark humor of Alvarius B. Also, Sublime Frequencies regulars Robert Millis and Mark Gergis are both explicitly involved. Case closed! That said, if the Bishops are behind Ak‚ÄôChamel, it only raises more questions ("so why was Ak‚ÄôChamel briefly a black metal band?" being one that springs to mind). In any case, Totemist would have made a truly killer follow up to Funeral Mariachi regardless of who was involved, as Ak‚ÄôChamel are legitimately quite good at making droning, Middle Eastern-inspired desert psychedelia. The real magic of the album, however, lies in how those perfectly good desert-psych jams regularly dissolve like a mirage to reveal something considerably darker, weirder, and more hallucinatory. At various points, Totemist calls to mind heavy trance-inducing harmonium drones, a wrong-speed field recording of an ancient tribal ritual, a chorus of sinister puppets, a cannibalized Phurpa album, and a fever dream about an all-Muppet mariachi band. Needless to say, it is a hypnotically creepy and surreal journey indeed, but considerably less nightmarish than some of the duo's previous releases (parts of which would seem perfectly at home in an evidence bag labeled "Dyatlov Pass Incident" or an alternate reality where The Blair Witch was actively involved in the early 2000s cassette underground). There are admittedly still some traces of that dark and murky terrain here, but Totemist is wonderful largely because of how effortlessly and organically the two poles of the bands' vision bleed into each another like an increasingly malfunctioning reality simulation. If I had to choose a favorite song, I would go with the colorfully titled "The Funeral of a Woman Whose Soul is Trapped in the Sun" or "Phallus Palace," but Totemist's phantasmagoric vision quest is best experienced as a sustained immersion.
Samples can be found here.