I have been a fan of Steven R Smith’s guitar playing for many years. He has put out records under his own name, as Hala Strana (which in brief sounds like Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man if it were set in Eastern Europe in the 14th Century) and recently as Ulaan Kohl. This is volume two in a planned trilogy named Ceremony. I haven’t heard the first part, so I am unable to say how this interacts with it.
I just read Jared Bier’s review of this record on Tiny Mix Tapes. It’s an interesting read because it is well written and I feel like I can agree with his observations. For him, these add up to an unrewarding listen. For me they form a compelling reinforcement of themes that run through his entire discography. The only thing I would disagree with on that review is that Acid Mothers Temple have been tagged as similar. I have found nearly every AMT record I have ever heard to be uninteresting, despite their incendiary live ability. Ulaan Kohl is never as theatrically forceful as the Japanese psych outfit, yet it is certainly dense.
If anyone out there heard his last album Owl (which wound up in my end of year top 10 list HERE) you will be picking up similar emanations from Ulaan Kohl, albeit laid out in a slightly different pattern, configured to slightly different parameters. One gets the sense that these differences are very important to Smith, however subtle they may be to the listener. There is the addition of drums, martial and insistent on the opening track. The guitar playing is as barren and rugged as ever but with more recognisable psych-rock figures conjured from the almost ever present murk, as on the fifth song. There are no vocals here; the closest relation that I know of in his discography would be a hybrid of Crown of Marches (despite that discs epic forty minute length) and Kohl (confusingly an album title, released under his own name).
Each of these eight recordings are around the four to five minute mark and they are all similar in tone, revolving around the dense and dark electric guitars. Each track is a verse in the wordless ballad of the album. Pace is an interesting element; Smith’s songs often sound paralysed and transportative all at once. The second song on this record demonstrates that shimmering immovability, a rock which is broken open when he starts to strum a heavily downtuned, fuzz cracked open chord cycle on the third. The aforementioned fifth song and the seventh are perhaps the songs that will stand out strongest in my memory. When the drums sporadically hammer and clatter on ‘5’ it takes you closest to what you might call the real world. Put less grandiosely: It hints most at straightforward rock and roll.
Steven R Smith makes music which is strangely close to the atmospheres that frame what I dream. I used to think that it sounded buried, but today I felt like I was what was buried and the music existed above ground on an uninhabited plateau. I find it hard to explain my reaction to this music in words and it reduces me to such analogies. If anyone has read The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, this record speaks similarly of desolation and aloneness while strengthening a connection with the beauty of a harsh and unforgiving land. At its strongest the novel pulls words and wisdom from the reader’s unconscious to show them what they already know. This sense of a personal and impersonal archaeology of the soul runs right through Ulaan Kohl. The music is not a companion, listening to II makes you feel very alone. It is at once geological and monolithic, but is as reminiscent of the dead bracken and sleeping spring as it is of the standing stone that stands amongst it in a bleak winter.
I do feel that it would be good to hear Smith tread new ground. This release is very close to the albums of his I have already mentioned and as such I couldn’t tell someone that already owned them that this was an essential addition. To someone who has bought this record and wants to hear more I would suggest either Heave the Gambrel Roof by Hala Strana, or the Kohl LP. It’s a shame that Smith rarely (if ever?) performs his solo work live, as I imagine it would have an even greater impact in that setting.