Ulaan Khol – I

If you’re a fan of Flying Saucer Attack’s spacious guitar drones or Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon then you understand the power of simplicity in ambient music. You also understand that simplicity alone doesn’t make for a compelling listen. Guitarist Steven R. Smith also understands this. Operating under the name Ulaan Khol on this CD, Smith invests his meditative instrumentals with rich sonic textures and fleeting outlines of narratives, which are enough to keep the songs from turning into self-indulgent wrecks.

The nine songs on I all go by the same self-conscious title: “Untitled.” This, combined with the impressionistic and monochromatic cover art, seem to be getting at a theme of non-identity. That’s fine. Truth be told, the tracks do share a spreading formlessness that makes it difficult to distinguish one from another. Certain characteristics, though, help in the distinguishing. The building cymbal runs of track 5 heighten the drama of the steady, sustained organ and guitar feedback. Track 1’s dirty, overdriven, and submerged guitar lines break out from the scenic, reverb-drenched chords favored elsewhere. Its Rapoon-like percussion also tell it apart from most of the other “Untitled”s.

Track 7 surely tries to outdo the others in terms of thematic drama. Its squalls of guitar and crashing cymbals sound like an approaching tornado thats still far enough away to make it indistinct but onimous just the same. The second track goes for a blissed-out early Verve vibe, as though it were an outtake from a Storm In Heaven jam session.

From the Vibracathedral-Orchestra-on-sleeping-pills tracks to the sturm und drang of the others, Ulaan Khol manages an album that’s primarily suited for background listening but also doesn’t wilt in direct sunlight. It’s an above-average addition to the collection of guitar-based space excursions.