Ulaan Khol II

[Soft Abuse; 2008]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: ambient, experimental
Others: Acid Mothers Temple

Within the realm of formal art criticism (admittedly, a practice typically deemed most valuable by those of us who engage in it), the descriptor “pretentious” is hurled about quite a bit. The frequency of this accusation is somewhat paradoxical, however, because the chief endeavor of criticism is that of legitimacy: when Lester Bangs reckons an album worthy of repeated listens, the public generally accepts, or at least acknowledges, his viewpoint. Yet denouncing some work on the basis that it is pretentious, thus intending this particular point to bolster our argument, rarely bears the validity we ascribe to it because, simply, describing something as pretentious is lazy. The definition of the word implies that the mere observer is acutely aware of the artist’s intentions, and that, really, is stupid and usually untrue.

So, staring at the digipack housing the Ulaan Khol CD before me, I cannot in good conscience declare this record pretentious. It’s tempting: not one of the eight compositions on the album bears a title, and the album as a whole is supposedly the second installment in a trilogy entitled Ceremony. Coupled with the artwork -- a hazed, celestial landscape -- II initially purports itself to be another tedious, overindulgent opus in the avant-garde tradition.

All this is to say, in actual fact, that perhaps the most conspicuous trait that this record bears is, surprisingly, a sense of immediacy. Only one track breaches a length of five-and-a-half minutes and, while a heaving organ and a rumbling electric guitar materialize as the most perceptible origin of sounds, sizeable portions of the record are carried by the work of fairly conventional drumming. As such, II steers closely to a piece resembling post-rock, that (ridiculously labeled) trend that, now six or seven years since the height of its popularity, has achieved recognition as one tiny blip across the vastly comprehensive history of music.

Devised as a further creative vehicle for the music of one Steven R. Smith, a member of cooperatives such as Hala Strana, Thuja, Mirza, and Jeweled Antler, who have been predominantly concerned in the past with experimentation and improvisation, Ulaan Khol executes heavy gushes of voluminous resonance, dithering between melodious, seraphic ascensions and brooding, kinetic narcosis. Rather than zeroing in on protracted drones, Smith noodles and spurs unremittingly to attain an outcome of continual movement throughout the entire record. These thousands of intricacies emitted from his guitar are glossed over by the drenching of reverberation and distortion effects, creating an expansiveness awash with psychedelia.

Labyrinthine in its progression, Ulaan Khol’s II consists of countless particulars virtually untraceable, courtesy of Smith’s devoted ministration to his guitar. The tumbling inertia of the record is thrilling during certain moments, but this principle, exerted all-inclusively, tends to hassle the album as a whole. Ironically, the constancy becomes underwhelming, beckoning for a change of pace in order to provide for a more meditative focus. Perhaps when Smith isn’t erecting one of his many escalating apogees, a cutback in velocity would provide a welcome shift, much like a slow, patient incubation period. But then, if II is only the second third of a grander masterwork, one can only guess at the direction that this final volume will head towards and, perhaps more intriguingly, what II will look like in retrospect.

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