Friday, September 19, 2008

Ulaan Khol - I (Soft Abuse 2008)

Soft Abuse 2008

Listen: Untitled 3

Steven R. Smith is a busy man. Already this year, he’s released an excellent self-titled release under his Thuja moniker, not long after releasing 2007’s Owl under his own name and Heave the Gambrel Roof under his Hala Strana pseudonym. And now, he’s begun a new project, and with each new project comes a new style. This time round it’s so dense it’s like being lost in a desert as a slightly muted sandstorm kicks up around you. The album is the first part of a trilogy, which Smith is calling ‘Ceremony’. Part two, or II as its unsurprisingly entitled is due for release towards the end of this year.

The cover is a pretty good indication of the sound you’re going to hear. The texturally rich, quite painterly, golden blur of the album artwork reflects those deep, autumnal sounds of the record. The cover brings to mind the work of Odilon Redon – in those strange abstracted dissolving forms, a strange beauty exists – you have to listen out for it and maybe it’s not immediately obvious, but Steven R. Smith’s playing has that same power to craft mystery.

Each untitled piece is a fuzzy, crackling soundscape, not dissimilar to the work of Japanese Noise Rock guitar legend, Keiji Haino. Like Haino, Smith enjoys layering dense, heavy sounds on top of one another, which ultimately become dense and droning, but like all good music, there is a wealth of variety within those layers. On ‘Untitled 3’, Smith builds the song around a selection of notes, to reach a climactic peak near the end – it’s powerful not in the Sigur Ros – crescendo followed crescendo way – but because it doesn’t force itself upon the listener. The progress is slow and gradual and if anything there is an almost anti-climatic ending as the volume decreases. But in doing so the layers of sound begin to split open and reveal their core, which pours out into the next song. Another artist that it brings to mind is Tim Hecker, whose spectral noise and electronic compositions share the same interest with Indeterminacy. The theory of musical Indeterminacy was advocated primarily by the composer, John Cage, who proposed that: in a piece of music all sounds should be given equal value and there should be no predetermined structure behind any given work.

In I, the lack of strict structure only helps to further the psychedelic, eastern tinged guitar space out, as Smith gradually introduces prolonged tonal shifts like a magician who isn’t really there. As always with this type of haunting drone music there’s a very meditative quality which can put the casual listener off. Unlike James Blackshaw’s Litany of Echoes, Steven R. Smith’s music doesn’t sound so pretty. It’s dark and all its drama appears initially only in miniature form – don’t expect any pop hooks here – but given the patience, the noise of the record begins to seep into everything around you. That’s why one of the best times to listen to this kind of music is on a train with a good pair of headphones. Look at of the window, and the world begins to melt. Cities dissolve to countryside and then to dust, eventually becoming hypnotic fragments of some primordial past. OK, maybe not all the time, but sometimes it’s nice to think in cosmic metaphor. It’s a strange experience, but ultimately very satisfying.

Say what you will about drone music, but it’s not about waiting to hear that next chord change, the coda, the middle eight or the chorus. It’s as structured as it needs to be for each new layer of sound and mirco change to be noticeable, and to paint the kind of vivid imagery it aims to. And I certainly has plenty within each piece to listen out for that it’ll keep any patient listener entertained for some time to come.


Anonymous,  September 24, 2008 at 9:46 PM  

I am so adding yo blog to my feeds.

Reece September 25, 2008 at 12:48 AM  

Thanks for the recognition. At least I know someone out there is reading what I have to write. I'm trying to post more often, but I never quite seem to find the time and I don't want to compromise on quality of analysis for the sake of quantity. More in-depth and less often seems to suit better anyway.

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