Sashash Ulz
A Piece Of Water






Birds. Trees. Water. Three seemingly alchemistical elements of nature, and incidentally of Kate Carr's Australian Flaming Pines label where they are put together in endlessly different and likewise successful variations by herself and the artists that make it onto her label. While the above denominators are but three of the many nature-related particles that end on the label's releases, the boon of such a clear cut focus leads to the possibility of targeting the specific needs of a devoted audience. The Russian composer Sashash Ulz from Petrozavodsk near the border to Finland makes it particularly easy to categorize his album if one only concentrates on the abundantly clear title: A Piece Of Water. However, things are not as evident as they seem, making Ulz's five-track mini album a strongly polylayered work. It all starts with a comprehensible endeavor though: the composer wants to introduce the city of Petrozavodsk with its 260,000+ inhabitants as well as the surrounding fields, forests and the great Lake Onego to the listener. So far, so intriguing. Since it is Sashash Ulz's hometown, his operation is stricken with nostalgia, melancholia… and lugubriousness. The means of which he reaches these aural depictions are fascinating once they work in unison, for the nexus of A Piece Of Water is solely acoustic. A piano, guitar and triangle fill the field recording-fueled arrangements of the Ambient, Drone and Modern Classical kind with life. These acoustic characteristics are then both ennobled and masked by two additional particularities: large amounts of reverb and echoes on the one hand in addition to memorable tone sequences whose catchiness does not root in strong melodies rather than being inside the timbre which gyrates around mystique, calmness and almost fulminant-gloomy settings on the other hand. Despite the implication of being in an open field or in lush forests, there is a vaulted and cavernous motif injected into each of the five tracks. That Sashash Ulz hails from Russia is never fully graspable during the various states of each track – with one prominent and overwhelmingly spine-tingling exception –, at times he even moves decidedly eastwards in his injections of pristine and pure sounds. A Piece Of Water is not always harmonious. A flurry of counterparts finds their way into the tracks, either perturbing the endemic circumstances or offering a new viewpoint to a tone color the listener previously thought of having distilled prior to its appearance. Kate Carr gave me access to the digital version of the album for review purposes and thus also granted me to experience one of the profoundest journeys I took for quite a long time, a journey which becomes increasingly striking and awe-inspiring during its progress.


As I have implied in the opening paragraph, Petrozavodsk seems to be a magic area. A sentence like this has been uttered about so many cities all over the world (New York anyone?), but here the intriguing solemnity unfolds thanks to the esoteric remoteness and tranquilizing peacefulness. Relief is the first track, its positively charged title fits perfectly with the ensuing aural landscape. The echo of brazen goblet drums evokes that loathed or loved New Age feeling, the background is completely black. Soon enough though, the titular element comes into play; the whitewashed water of the intrinsic rivers floats energetically yet gently in adjacency to a deep piano melody soaked in diffuse hall effects, with some of its tones unexpectedly towering above their brethren, inducing a sine tone-like spirit. The streaming sound of the river fades out occasionally but is always bubbling in the background if one listens carefully, waiting to rise and being united again with the Drone-like quality of the piano melody. The interplay between reverb, echo and blur make this and all of Sashash Ulz's pieces so languorous and enthralling. A piano arrangement at its core with a helix of rivers, Relief is wondrously remote and cavernous. The impression of being able to watch either the sun or the stars never appears. The opposite is the case: Relief offers a vault of shelter, a cleft-stricken grove with micro-canals through which the gel-like luminosity of the piano oozes. A hugely impressive track that fittingly enough ends in a faux-electric current of duskiness with gyring crystalline piano sparks.


The following Paridae is keener on a certain rusticity. Droning guitar licks of the opaque-shady kind merge with an organ-like ecclesiasticism and seemingly synthetic figments of specters. However, I tend to believe that this is a proper guitar-focused lullaby in a twilight state. No waterscape is depicted, the tone sequences are mellow and snugly but contain both a translucent grimness and traces of bane which make Paridae an artifact of duality and willful inconsistence. One can figuratively smell the pine woods and forlorn forests in this short piece of less than three minutes. Due to the omission of a field recording, its dreamlike state is only interpolated. Less is more in Paridae's case. Up next is Sleepy Thoughts. It targets the needs of Drone fans. Supercharged with a grey-tinted mist, exhibiting galactic birds in tandem with croaking critters and a murmuring susurration of blazingly ice-blue airflows or synth gusts, its state may be wave-like and enigmatically ghostly, but these colder molecules notwithstanding, it never feels labyrinthine or remote. A specifically successful element is the wealth of blebs, droplets, chirps and clicks which are interwoven into the soundscape. Their omnipresence is of a twofold nature, firstly lessening the contemplative loneliness and secondly boosting the spiritual sanctuary on the other. I dare not even try to guess what the origin of the wafting strings and bolstered fog banks is. It could be guitars, pianos or synths which snuck in. What is truly important about this piece? It is the tonality, the mystified and constantly looming atmosphere, everything feels grey but never dull, there are whispers, crackles and little spots which give Sleepy Thoughts a surprisingly uplifting accentuation of plasticity in a surrounding that is otherwise solely about isolation and foggy veils of moisture.


Wordless is an arrangement of almost six minutes which draws from a much wider array of instruments, textures and surfaces. It might well be the best segment of the album. Far be it from Sashash Ulz to create a bustling ebullience, but the ever-changing potpourri of patterns does not remain unnoticed. In its initial stage, Wordless delivers a wonderful mélange of transcendental Far Eastern tone sequences on the guitar and marries them with plinking triangles, related sparkling shards, sizzling hi-hats, (simulated?) taiko drums and a ubiquitously pulsating backdrop aorta of whispers. Silver reverberations fade out into the distance, the decay of temple gongs dilutes into the dripstone cave-like site. The Asian setting is maintained throughout the song, the guitar gets increasingly warped, almost mimicking an exotic zither or koto. Melodies are few and far between without ever being memorable or particularly catchy, for they serve a greater purpose: entirety. Everything fits together, a deep flow of contemplation and quiescence is erected, no shade or darker territory is ever implied. Wordless is a fantastic vignette that leaves the Russian and Finnish realms behind and intertwines a breeze from the East. Accidental or not, the tonality is highly soothing and elaborative. The final Cold Spring Sea ventures to rougher gales and crepuscular colors despite the state of spring. Whitecaps and roaring winds encounter a strangely luring, almost jinxing and prototypically Russian piano melody with Yiddish accents. Traversed by the occasional yearning, melancholia and dissonances, the piano tones are polyphonous, schlep themselves forward in a dubious state of red-glowing effulgence, followed by sunnier tendencies and culminating in a hammering cacophony, or better still: caliginosity. Cold Spring Sea is a brutish ode to eclecticism, willfully threnodic vignettes are followed by doleful aches which are then nullified by two-tier disparities. This final piece is absolutely haunting, Sashash Ulz sails to Modern Classical tides, I am sure the "normal" Ambient listener (who might that be?) has never experienced such a torn, withered and irresolute piece before. A superb gem!


A Piece Of Water makes for an enormously alienating listening experience, but Sashash Ulz should not be ashamed of it, by no means at all! The rough wilderness, sudden emanations of isolation, the cavernous structure as well as the – at times even diametrically opposite – claustrophobia make for a multi-faceted work which is first and foremost about Lake Onego and its surrounding hamlets, fields and woodlands. The depiction and integration of field recordings, runlets and streams justifies such an impression, but A Piece Of Water is more than just a poetic transfiguration of the aural kind. It is a journey into the innermost self. Yep, you've heard this one before, been there, done that. But the different, by tendency incompatible and outright counterattacking harmonics or color palettes let this mini album feel like a coming-of-age artifact. Starting with a New Age phase, moving over to rustic Folk scents and misty bogs to curiously but fantastically enchanting Asian schemes to the final piece of polysemous uncertainty, the rhizomes of A Piece Of Water spread from Petrozavodsk and grow vigorously through many states, both geographical and allegorical. The press text of the Flaming Pines label mentions the "grittier sides of urban living," and grittiness the listener shall face every so often indeed, but it is a strangely camouflaged, fuzzy one as if a Gaussian blur were applied. No hectic footsteps, no fleeting fragments of chit-chat or sounds of, say, woodworking factories ever appear. The focus remains on the beauty and prosaicness of nature. The grandest stylistic particularities are the shifting timbres as well as the magnanimous amounts of reverb and hall effects which emit an erudite vapor. My favorite remains Wordless with its resplendent superimposition of chimes, Asian traits and tranquilizing majesty. From an avantgarde and compositional perspective however, the finale Cold Spring Sea is the apparition to get entangled with; its phases of obscurity, nebulosity and forceful vascularity are mind-blowing, the piano melody is eerie at best and soul-crushing at worst (Dark Ambient fans can transpose the pairings). Everything the Flaming Pines label stands for is in here, but the Russian artist concatenates the birds, trees and waters in a positively ominous and haphazardly planned way. Sashash Ulz has delivered a magnificent mini album where the field recordings and the post-processing are only the means to reach the impression of twilight. And once you are awash with twilight, everything is impossibly not rightfully falsifiable…



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Ambient Review 203: Sashash Ulz – A Piece Of Water (2013). Originally published on Apr. 10, 2013 at