It’s a hard world for electric guitarists right now. I imagine the solo guitarist as a desperate traveler walking through a valley in search of what used to be a lush wilderness, now finding only ash and dust. Some streams still roll through that valley and may do so until the end of time: a small plain forms between the thin, trickling creek of the blues and the steady flow of the folk stream; farther away is the spring of classical guitar hidden way up in the mountains. But wasn’t there a river here? Didn’t the wide river of rock flow through this valley with all its vigorous rapids and waterfalls? Some tributary seems to still feed the stunted swamps of metal and noise rock, but what happened to all that water? In truth, there are plenty of good rock and experimental guitarists still exploring, and some genres don’t need to constantly evolve. And yet, some splinter genres of rock do require that push toward novelty or they threaten to become mere recapitulation, particularly areas that don’t immediately link up with long-running traditions. Post-rock, and any other genre that relies on repetitive guitar riffing, is perhaps the driest of these gulches.
Steven R. Smith’s many projects have covered a large swath of the guitar’s range. Look at, for example, the guitar work on Thuja’s All Strange Beasts of the Past (if you can find the guitar at all beneath the layers of percussion) or his comparatively recent solo work Cities. In comparison to those works, Ulaan Markhor feels a bit like a step backwards. It’s obvious by the standard instrumentation of this album that Smith intends to move toward a more conventional post-rock sound with his Ulaan Markhor project, and this is not a critique of that choice. There are also plenty of interesting things happening in Smith’s tone, especially the granulized or bit-crushed fuzziness, which promotes deep listening and audience involvement. But ultimately, this album lacks direction and treads territory that others mapped exhaustively years ago.
Most of the songs here feel like stalled jam sessions, riffs repeating endlessly without moving forward. Many tracks fade out in the middle of a riff, suggesting perhaps that there was nowhere else to go. The band is tight, but they tend to move at consistent tempos throughout the album, so most songs go stale quickly. As one might expect, the strongest tracks occur when Smith is alone with the guitar; these sections break apart from the rest of the album such that when the drums come in, any textural interests slip away into the driving rock rhythms. For all of Smith’s previous innovation, unfortunately little on Ulaan Markhor makes use of it.
Post-rock will need to make serious changes to survive. Its stream is drying up. Perhaps what most interested its audience at first was a sense of discovery. A great energy flowed through it, and not just the energy of the rhythms and the loudness of the amps, but a creative force, galvanized with potential. The last decade all but drained that energy away. I don’t know if any oases lie hidden in that desert, but if they do, they sit far off the beaten track. Travelers there would do well to keep moving; in drinking from it, they leave less for the parching sun to dry.