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Ulan Bator – Stereolith

Bureau B

Ulan Bator - StereolithAmaury Cambuzat started Ulan Bator twenty-four years ago and after eleven albums and numerous collaborations with the likes of Faust and Michael Gira, their twelfth LP finds the band stripped down to Amaury, augmented by two Italian players on bass and drums/sax. Clearly a workaholic, the Italian tour for the last album found Amaury piecing together the basic tracks for this album in hotel rooms on his laptop. Once the tour was finished, he went into the studio to re-record it with Mario Di Battista and Sergio Pomante.

Unsurprisingly due to its gestation, there is a very cool pan-European feel to the album. Amaury is happy to sing in both French and English and his delicious, soft half-whisper draws the listener in as if existential secrets are being passed on. Even where the vocals become a little more strident, the effects strewn across them lend mystery and imagination. There are ten tracks in all on Stereolith, each clocking in at between four and five minutes. Their succinctness does not bely their variety as the songs’ structures and styles do not sit still at all. In fact the only things that tie the tracks together are Amaury’s gentle yet emotive vocals and the overall sense that the tracks are coming from one particular person’s vivid imagination.

The opener “On Fire” is pregnant with portent, bells chiming, the bass bright and resonant, the atmosphere alive with drama. Beats kick in with track two, the fantastically titled “Stereolith” with a Bowie-like guitar figure fizzing in and out of the driving, mechanical beat. It lumbers as the guitar fights against it, trying to twist the track out of shape. The vocal is whispered yet urgent, confused and perhaps frustrated: “We have everything but we are nothing, we have nothing but we are everything.” “Blue Girl” seems also to be wrestling with confusion, its refrain of “Black blue-eyed girl” delivered over deep piano notes interspersed with light as a cymbal wash laps over us like the gentlest of waves.

Multi-lingual “Spinach Can” changes the mood again with its gorgeous enunciation and mystifying lyrics, a skeletal one-note guitar line tied to a sweet, warm bass wrapping the song in an envelope of barely contained frustration. Why he loses himself in a tin of spinach we can only guess. Elsewhere, we have the subtlest hint of Clan Of Xymox and maybe a touch of 4AD in the elegiac piano and mournful strings of “Lost”, its electronic backing holding up the structure like some gauze-y scaffolding; “With my new make-up on, the wax monster is ready to attack” — indeed!

This album is impossible to pigeonhole. It is a series of ruminative, emotional, diverse tracks that are linked by the overarching vision of their creator. Some of them lull us, others are more strident or perhaps less comfortable. There are bouncy Euro keyboards, a gentle Wurlitzer, a sprinkle of saxophone across some of the tracks from Sergio, but in the end, this is an intensely satisfying and perfectly realised album with enough European élan to draw anybody in.

-Mr Olivetti-

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