For the French, loving music is not enough; one must embrace it with the codependent disgust of a couple verging on a murder-suicide. The French avant-rock group Ulan Bator clearly loves the pop tradition in this way. Listening to the trio's first American release (and fourth overall) is like tracing its finger-shaped bruises across the throat of pop history.
Produced by Michael Gira, master of musical abrasion for Swans and Angels of Light, Ego: Echo merges elements of Pink Floyd's early psychedelia, Jacques Dutronc's snide lounge pop, and Nick Drake's droning folk. The nine-minute epic "Hemisphere" opens the album with a murmuring bass line and a trickling of piano, building to minor crescendos with ringing cymbals and violently strummed guitar, then slowing to a chanted lyric about repetition by vocalist-guitarist Amaury Cambuzat. On "Santa Lucia," the band nabs Sonic Youth's angular guitar approach and further mangles it by placing jagged guitar jabs and sinister bass rhythms beneath the dissonance. Elsewhere "Étoile Astre" features a fuzzed-out bass line, fanged Wurlitzer organ, and another repetitive vocal chorus -- approximating swinging go-go joyfully maligned by distortion. The closing epic, "Echo," moves through three sections: an initial, flowing haze of sound pitted against a laconic revision of the slashing beat from Jimi Hendrix's "I Don't Live Today"; an almost sweet, organ-and-vocal torch section; and finally a staggering, string-raked guitar riff and a pulsating bass line that abruptly end as if the band has beaten the tune to death.
With Ego: Echo Ulan Bator places itself in a long line of French artists -- Situationist International, Jean-Luc Godard, Serge Gainsbourg -- who both embrace and desecrate tradition. Beyond the quality of the music itself, it is this gleeful appropriation that makes the album sound as if Ulan Bator is doing violence to the thing that it loves.
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