Styles: spiritual, guitar, heavy psych
Others: Loren Connors, Badgerlore, Thuja, GHQ
Steven R. Smith, the creative mind behind Ulaan Khol, is one of the most exciting guitarists shredding up the underground. His productivity is relentless and his sensibilities always shifting, producing haunted free-sound with Thuja, capturing Eastern vibes and spiritual ecstaticness with Hala Strana, realizing a plurality of meditative and doomful soundworlds released under his own name, and as a critical member of all things Jeweled Antler Collective. In addition to the release of Cities on Immune Recordings, 2009 saw Smith joining forces with clarinetist Gareth Davis for the recording of Westering, which is arguably the most soul-enhancing, innovative, and mesmerizing piece of music Smith has created so far.
III brings Ulaan Khol’s Ceremony trilogy to a close. Listened to as a totality, the three suites are every bit as epic as The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, but with the perk that they can be reasonably enjoyed in one glorious sitting. Smith constructs a gigantic, orchestral sound-space drenched in distortion fuzz and feedback, where guitar lines voyage out into the dangerous domain of contemplative eternity and are provided a hero’s welcome upon returning from the void. While each part of the trilogy has included at least one rock ‘n’ roll blazer, “Untitled 2” on III (all the tracks in the trilogy are “Untitled”) shows Smith creating what might be his most straightforward and accessible riff, ultimately climaxing in a rush of furious drumming and feedback oblivion. Even “Untitled 5” reveals a recognizable and recurring guitar phrase underneath the haze of transcendent static where previous songs from the trilogy are characterized by drifting ambiguity. It only makes sense, though, that the protagonist of Smith’s mythical sound-adventure would return to the world in order to establish new foundations.
Traces of the most compelling and skilled contemporary guitarists can be heard throughout the Ceremony trilogy: one need not stretch too far to detect instances of Ben Chasny, Loren Connors, Sarah Lipstate, Ilyas Ahmed, Tom Carter, Willie Lane, and Rhys Chatham. But what’s more interesting is to consider how Ulaan Khol successfully manages to bring the multitude of sound-directions explored across Smith’s other projects into a unified whole. While it is easy and exhilarating to get lost in the otherworldly mazes of sound he creates, there’s no doubting the fact that Smith has a lucid and steadfast vision that motivates his work. What is most intriguing for the listener is not knowing where Smith will go next, but trusting that it will be magnificent and spiritually rejuvenating. This is the most desirable quality of any visionary, especially for those who get their kicks by walking the sublime ledge between unmapped worlds.