Anytime I see the Ulaan prefix and Steven R. Smith’s name flagging up in a given year I’m excited. Its guaranteed that whatever’s coming down the tubes is an instrumental crusher. So, after having capped off last year with a new Ulan Passerine album – the doom folk member of the family – Smith is circling back with a new tape from Ulaan Markhor, kicking through scuffed dessert psych with equal aptitude. Within his universe this iteration of himself winds up the most scathing, the most brutal and the most outwardly psychedelic. Picking up ques from Amon Düül and Guru Guru as well as post-punk bands like 13th Chime, the record is stark and discordant but oddly beholden to rhythm’s sway. Smith saws at the songs with John Cale scratches of violin while the dust-choked atmosphere projects menace and lonesome desperation.
The album revels in an almost hallucinatory loneliness in fact, like trying to find the way out from the folds of one’s own mind. The edges keep shifting though, and the exits flicker and disappear without pattern. All the while Ulaan Markhor underscores the frustration and deepening delusion with a hungry, voyeuristic eye. Smith has crafted a cinematic score here and the titles tell as much, but he’s pushing beyond the normal bounds of post-rock groundswell or Morricone-lite Western cloud gathering. Smith works the mechanics of build and simmer better than most and when he reaches a break in the damn on “Flowering” it rips the tension to shreds, never quite easing it, just turning up the volume to a roar and pounding imagined footsteps on the base of the listener’s neck. With Helm he’s created something heavy and lasting, an album that’s gets its claws in you, the kind where you’re sweating through the good passages and only notice once the storm has cleared.
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