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Ulaan Khol - I

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Artist: Ulaan Khol

Album: I

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Mar. 17, 2008

Few figures in the music underground can boast such a consistently compelling discography as that of L.A.-based multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith. Browse his list of works and you'll find a diverse (but cohesive) list of releases under a myriad of monikers, each of them steeped in psychedelic desolation. From his group efforts with haze-punk outfit Mirza and Jewelled Antler associates Thuja, to the bevy of solo output released under both his own name and the Hala Strana moniker, Smith rarely delivers a dud – no matter what incarnation the record represents. And his catalog is still growing at a fantastic rate. In just a year's time, Smith has released four full-lengths under four different pseudonyms, the latest of which birthed a new alias: Ulaan Khol – a guise that wrangles his mystical personae and drenches them in a feedback bath.

I is the beginning of an ambitious new project for Smith, the first installment of a three-part suite broadly entitled, "Ceremony." The record comes hot on the heels of Owl, the 11th full-length release under his own name (not to mention a spectacular new Thuja LP put out by Important earlier this year), and the first to showcase Smith's vocal talents. Though the mournful vocals worked well within the context of his lonesome guitar tone, the introduction of a human presence seemed like an unnecessary addition to Smith's already transcendent sound, depriving it of the detached effect of an isolated Fender. Smith's true talent stems from his ability to coax such emotion out of sonic abstractions, building clouds of triumph from converged dissonance and electronic dust. His knack for channeling the otherworldly shines as beautifully as ever on Ulaan Khol, building symphonies of listless momentum from beyond. The way he channels ancient voices from wordless compositions is captivating, descending like a slow-motion avalanche but still somehow keeping time.

The nine untitled tracks, minimal packaging info and bleak cover art seem like deliberate tactics to obscure notions of what the trilogy is all about, leaving only a fuzzy portrait of Smith next to a pile skulls for the listener to go on. Whatever the method to his madness, I is certainly an epic way to begin. The suite sparks to life with a similar crackle to that of Owl, like a testy amplifier experiencing a spectral short. Things quickly give way to what sounds like a broken Mirza throwback, blazing through layered guitar wails and rickety drums. The tracks melt into one another transparently, shifting between blurry stumbles and saturated climaxes that evoke ascension, but emanate a heavy burden.

I is the most dense of Smith's solo recordings, containing several layers of restless harmony that are far more aggressive than he usually showcases. Ulaan Khol seems like a fusion of his past efforts, incorporating the organ-laded compositions of The Anchorite (recently reissued to CD by the Root Strata imprint) with the guitar wranglings of Kohl, tossing in Thuja's microscopic psychedelia with the distorted drive of Mirza. Organ and rhythm guitar provide the foundation for Smith's screeching guitar riffs, often touching on Matt Valentine's lunar blues, or the noisier side of Charalambides' Western noodling. The haze subsides slowly at the records' end, concluding in a cliffhanger that leaves the listener awaiting the undefined progression of an unexplained story.

All told, I emerges as another notch in the belt for Smith's entrancing catalog – a successful amalgamation of what he does best, melding timeless soundscapes with stark psychedelia. II is slated for an autumn 2008 release, and I'm awaiting the sequel almost as much as the next installment of “Trapped in the Closet.”

By Cole Goins

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