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Music  >>  CDs  >>  Rock/Pop

Ulan Bator

Stereolith

Ulan Bator Stereolith
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In today's increasingly barren rock and roll landscape, Ulan Bator stand as beacons of explorative songwriting. Formed in Paris in 1993 by Amaury Cambuzat (vocals, guitar and keyboards) and Olivier Manchion (bass), the band's atmospheric approach to composition has consistently yielded guitar-driven, avant-rock at once hypnotic and untamed. And while their sound has developed in a variety of directions - often in relationship to changing line-ups and various collaborations, including with Faust and Swans' Michael Gira - Ulan Bator resist simple categorization: kraut-y repetition, post-rock guitar flourishes and kosmische synth work have all taken an audible lead throughout their now twenty-year career. Stereolith sees band mainstay Cambuzat continuing on in a tradition of experimental rock and roll, projected through a contemporary prism of electronics and synthesizers. Cambuzat pieced together the band's 12th album on his laptop before eventually re-recording individual parts in the studio. The result is a crisp sound that resists typical psych and experimental clichés of washed-out and contourless improvisation. The songs on Stereolith achieve a grand, looming presence despite their relatively short lengths. While Stereolith's longest and most obvious genre-nod "NeuNeu" clocks at a pleasantly meandering five-and-half minutes and features guitar work reminiscent of Michael Rother, most of the songs are under four, with dream-like atmospheres established from the beginning. An excellent example is "Blue Girl", which opens with deep sustained piano, gongs, and industrial bleeps before exploding into a playful post rock groove that plays off Popol Vuh-like synth vamps. That quality continues on album standout "Ego Trip", sung by Cambuzat in both French and English. The song's various melodies - played on harpischord, chorus bass, guitar - shift over a steady chord progression to create a glorious interweaving. Cambuzat's non-native approach to writing in English, like that of Björk or Damo Suzuki, borders on the surreal. "I lost myself in a spinach can," he murmurs on "Spinach Can", evoking a lysergic-tinged scene from an episode of Popeye. By the end of the slow, dirge-like final bursts of album closer "Dust", it becomes clear that in Cambuzat's world, the dark, the light and the strange are comfortable bedfellows. It's an atmospheric ménages-a-trois that occasionally pushes beyond the boundaries of taste and coolness into vaguely new-age-y and adult contemporary territory. As the singer said in a recent interview, "The music is best listened to in a 3D pyramid, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

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