Although he’s a member of the Jewelled Antler Collective, multi-instrumentalist Steven R. Smith has never shown the same penchant for collaboration that his bandmates have. Some of that undoubtedly has to do with geography – after all, Smith is a Los Angelino, while most of the other Jewelled Antler mainstays live in and around San Francisco. Thus, while friends like Glenn Donaldson, Loren Chasse and Rob Reger have popped up on and cross-pollinated each other’s projects, Smith has carved out a generous discography largely on his own (save for his contributions to the ever-beguiling Thuja).
This geographic isolation helps explain the fact that, when looking at much of what Jewelled Antler has created, Smith seems very much like the odd man out. His early solo records created sparse, haunting instrumentals out of elements of Neubauten and Swell Maps, while his “folk” project Hala Strana has shied away from plucks of the left coast bummer variety in favor of a dour, more free-wheeling Eastern European baroque. Inaugurated earlier this year, Ulaan Khol is yet another pseudonym for Smith (who also finds time to record under his birth name as well), and one that only accentuates the many differences between his work and that of his Jewelled Antler brethren.
So much of Jewelled Antler is about the evocation of a place – the shores and coastlines, the forest refuge – and in that respect this project is no different. Here, however, Smith drapes billowing clouds of distorted guitar and pulsing organ to conjure the sound of downed cities and crumbling urban wastelands. While trace elements of the skeletal pulse of Smith’s great post-millennial solo records pops up now and again, there’s a blown-out urgency at work here that goes back a little further to Smith’s time as a drummer in the excellent, if somewhat unheralded, Mirza. As psychedelic as anything his contemporaries have recently attempted, Smith approaches the style from a different angle, choosing instead the near-nihilistic morbidity of Keiji Haino and the Middle Eastern reimaginings of Agitation Free.
While still mostly a one-man show, the Ulaan Khol material feels full-throated and warm in ways that Smith’s other work has not, roaring to life with all the vigor of a full band. Percussion emerges only when absolutely necessary, opening the disc with a start and transitioning it through a tense middle section. Elsewhere, the album is solely given over to gorgeous, layered guitar explorations and the occasional counterpoint of keys, creating a thick, swirling mass of grim tones that occasionally break into spare chords and foggy patches of hushed ambiance. Conceived as a trilogy, this second part of the Ulaan Khol series doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the opening third did a few months back. Instead, Smith spends these eight tracks focusing on the deepening of one exquisitely foreboding mood. And with that groundwork fully laid, it’ll be some kind of joy to hear Smith erect the final stories.