Ulan Bator are something strange and beautiful and other. Other than rock or pop or world or any simple label that could be slapped on their music. They are Outlanders -- not mere "foreigners" but something so alien and different from what is heard every day that they can only come from someplace beyond what you know. Released on former Swans kingpin Michael Gira's label, Ego:Echo offers glimpses of this other place, a sepia-and-shadow world where Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Ugliness, and all the permutations of that conundrum spin and collide and whirl into streamers of glorious music.
When truth is beautiful in Ulan Bator, the music is sinuous and flowing. Amaury Cambuzat and Olivier Manchion lay simple patterns of piano, bass and various keyboards over Matteo Dainese's skipping drums (the record also features a guest appearance by Jean Hervé Peron of Faust). Languid voices surface, repeating phrases in accented English and the group's native French tongue, then submerge in the depths. Then truth becomes ugly, and Dainese's drums galvanize into whip-cracks and pistol reports. Electric guitars spark and shriek, wailing single notes above running bass lines and frantic torrents of clipped, menacing words. The transformation occurs again and again throughout Ego:Echo, so effectively blurring the line between Beauty and Ugliness that when you emerge from the other side, there no longer is any difference between the two. The cumulative effect is akin to cradling your sleeping hand in your waking hand: Your own flesh is numb and dead to itself, until some unheard signal revives it and your hand becomes so sensitive upon waking that it burns and tingles with Catherine Wheels of pain and pleasure that are indistinguishable because they are the same. That is the world of Ulan Bator.