Rather than reach for the sky and risk spreading himself thin — as he’s been guilty of at times — Steven R. Smith settles into an airtight pocket on his first Ulaan Markhor outing. He’s replaced befogged fury with somatic groove, pulling from the hypnotic persistence of krautrock in addition to the spine-tingling daze of drone.
The smaller scale of these explorations leads to greater consistency to be sure, but perhaps less impact as well.
The obvious quality that differentiates this from his recent Ulaan Khol offerings is the emphasis on rhythm. Drums carry the mail on the standouts, such as ‘White Markhor’, a track that sees percussion carry the torch while roiling guitars creep up on the ever-slippery line dividing the lit from the lost. 2 minutes in, the bedrock withers away and once-contained ghostly trails sweep across a vacant desert, whooshing and wailing for harbor. The drums emerge seconds later with renewed focus, strong-arming their way back to trenches that had seemingly vanished into oblivion. ‘Hand of Circles’ is a fellow brooding, fuzz-bleached gallop. Meanwhile, ‘Plague of Farewells’ likely amounts to the album’s creepiest cut, each thump of militaristic percussion acting as a haunt with sights on locking us into limbo. It’s certified zombie-movie psych-rock, putrid and pained, highlighting how uphill a task bidding adieu to everything we’ve known can really be.
On the terser end of the spectrum, ‘Slipped God’ and ‘City of Lakes’ both miss the mark in under 2 minutes. It’s as though they’re working against the clock, pressed for time and thus opting for the plainest route toward guitar-centric loft. Other numbers — namely ’100 Birds’ and ‘Half Ricochet’ — are simply too timid, failing to fan the flames ardently enough to get a sweat going. ‘Kites’, though promising as a big and bleary sigh, cabbages its own thunder by clumsily nodding to the world of kosmiche.
Closer ‘Dancing’ cleans up the proceedings on a terrific note, thankfully, Smith revisiting the slow-building simmer and employing his tools in cunning and understated fashion, blending shuffling drums, viscous guitar lines, and voracious feedback into a tense, terror-driven mammoth.
While Ulaan Markhor doesn’t scale the summits some of Smith’s previous work has, that isn’t its aim either. This doesn’t burn through the night, it calls the darkness home.