Ego:Echo | Review

TimeOut New York | Issue No. 276 | Jordan N. Mamone

Simply put, Ego:Echo is an out-of-nowhere, art-rock masterpiece.

Simply put, Ego:Echo is an out-of-nowhere, art-rock masterpiece. The French trio Ulan Bator has expertly assembled tempestuous guitar clang, mood-enhancing loop/keyboard exploration and oddly played yet sensual pop flourishes into a magnificent, natural whole that dramatically pulses with vivid ideas and gnashing severity. Undulating drones give way to soothing, breathy vocals, which dissolve in acidic tone clusters and hard, sternly stated rhythms—often within a single, shockingly cohesive track. This immaculately performed album jars when you least expect it, then anesthetizes with low-key beauty once you've grown accustomed to the full-on assault.

Ulan Bator's enthusiasm, dapper hooks and nimble racket fully counter the asexual, antiseptic cool that too often plagues the rock avant-garde. There is nothing bloodless, self-conscious or distant about this demanding—but never unmelodic—music. Each song is a richly arranged suite of transformations: When the paranoid, sinister nerve-punk of "Santa Lucia" finally explodes, it reorganizes itself into a minimalist flutter of mellow bass figures, wispy drum vapors and abrupt stabs of electric sunshine. A one-note, lengthy mantra of fuzz tones and guttural incantations eventually overpower the continental, soft-funk glide of "Soeur Violence." Elsewhere, the three-part "Echo" begins as a synthesized exorcism, then thins to an emotive, fragile tiptoe before resolving as a punishing, repetitive trudge to the gallows.

Revealingly, Ego:Echo boasts contributions by Faust's Jean Herve Peron and ex-Swans/current Angels of Light mainstay Michael Gira, two visionaries who doubtlessly influenced Ulan Bator's outlook. The latter—who, during a hellish heat wave, produced the disc in an economy-size studio just north of Florence, Italy—can be thanked for the up-front, intimate quality of the recording. He also released the work (the band's American debut) on his own Young God label. Fortunately, though, Gira never steals the spotlight from his crafty, personality-filled clients: He simply brings out the best in them.