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Ulaan Khol - III

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Artist: Ulaan Khol

Album: III

Label: Soft Abuse

Review date: Mar. 10, 2010

Under the mysterious Ulaan Khol moniker, Steven R. Smith has spent the better part of the last two years crafting a three-part suite entitled “Ceremony” for the Soft Abuse label. His method is both straightforward and not: Both I and II indulge in echo-drenched psychedelic squall, the first album slightly louder and brighter (both in art and musical composition) than the doom-laden follow-up. It’s no-frills instrumental acid jamming to be sure, but Smith’s significant skill as a guitarist sometimes makes the swirling assault an impenetrable haze of notes and rhythms. You spend less time hearing the hooks than trying to figure out what instruments are being played at any given time.

For the final installment of the trilogy, the L.A.-based artist tries to unite the sounds of the first two albums under the guise of “a groundbreaking, breathtaking amalgam of heavy Komische & basement psychedelic freak-outs.” That’s only partly true, though. We can say for certain that this is the heaviest of the three albums, as evidenced by the roar of “Untitled [2],” equaled up to this point only by the corresponding track on the first album. Part of the reason for this is the percussion, which popped up intermittently on I and even less on II. Another part is the suggestion of percussion – “Untitled [5]” has a wonderfully heavy middle stretch that tricks you into thinking you can hear crashing cymbals or at least a bass drum when in fact it’s just guitars working their subconscious magic. The added noise and anchor of rhythm – sometimes lacking in earlier instances of “Ceremony’s” more contemplative moments – is simply overwhelming.

Because it is often so heavy, the best moments on III turn out to be the quieter moments, when Smith cuts most of the pedals and lets his six-string go to work. The final three songs are the best example, not least of all because they are paced perfectly: If you can make it that far, “Untitled [6]” lures you in with a fried-out build-up, a comparatively quiet strum that ascends to the dizzying heights of a jet engine roar, on par with anything else he’s done.

It should be noted that, with the exception of the final track, no song exceeds the six-minute barrier; even in his most intense aural attacks and subsequent releases, Smith remains economical in length. Hardly a second is wasted getting to the point, which makes Ulaan Khol the easiest entry point for someone interested in delving further into his personal back catalog with Hala Strana, Mirza, Thuja, and associated acts of the Jewelled Antler Collective.

III thus feels like a much longer, more “epic” piece of music than it actually is. What does “Ceremony” mean? What did Steven R. Smith hope to accomplish with Ulaan Khol? I don’t know, and answers don’t seem forthcoming. What we do know is that III unites the openly audacious I with the brooding II to create arguably his most coherent solo endeavor.

By Patrick Masterson

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