02. Town Goat
03. William's Nightmare
04. Matthew O'Connor
05. Ship To Shore
06. The Great Neurasthenic
07. If You Will
09. Winged Babblar
10. One Two Three Four
12. Sick Man Outside
2006 Robotic Empire
Say what you will about Ultra Dolphins (I have no doubt many confused audience members have) but they are one of the most fearlessly unique acts I encountered in all of 2006. It may have taken some time for the disc to grow on me, but once things finally clicked, I couldn't stop listening. There's a certain joy I get from hearing a band that seem concerned solely with making music for themselves. In fact, that selfish introspection has often lead to greatness, as in the case of bands like Guilt or Thoughts of Ionesco, bands whose aesthetic had little to do with what else was happening in music at the time. While Ultra Dolphins might share some minor musical similarities with the latter group, there are definitely few reference points that seem to have any relevance in explaining the band's sound or style.
Mar begins with the title track, a brief and somber harmonium interlude, before launching headlong into thirty minutes of unfettered musical experimentation. No approach to singing or playing one's instruments is off limits, nor are a variety of instruments that one might not expect to hear prominently on an album this aggressive. Like many of the album's other tracks, "William's Nightmare" is a raucous affair that features very little distortion on the lead guitars, but doesn't suffer from a lack of loudness thanks to the sheer intensity with which Ultra Dolphins perform. It owes as much to Fugazi as it does to Television or free jazz. There's a manic energy surrounding every note and howl that fits perfectly with whatever the band seems to do from track to track. There are certainly moments that work better than others, but the disc's highlights tend to make up for anything one might deem lackluster.
A handful of piano-based interludes figure in to the album's flow as well, miniature sea shanties, dirges and waltzes that perpetuate the already-unusual album experience. "Ship to Shore" begins with a riff that goes one way until the beat sends you in the opposite direction, leading to one of the disc's most memorable melodic sequences. There's no shortage of great moments spread across Mar's twelve tracks and I found that a new song became my favorite with every listen, even after firmly deciding on one after the previous listen. At the moment, I'm in complete awe of "Winged Babblar," an increasingly complex instrumental piece that defies description.
The one thing that might make this disc a hard sell for certain listeners is the clean relatively lo-fi production style. It's not muddy at any point or even flat, but it bears a strong resemblance to Hot Cross' Cryonics album in its completely upfront nature. There doesn't seem to be very much manipulation of the natural sounds being made by the band themselves and as much as it allows their personality to show, it also reveals their occasional limitations. It didn't bother me, but it might rub some the wrong way.
Bottom Line: While it may not have been one of the most heralded or the most technically accomplished albums of 2006, Ultra Dolphins' Mar was undoubtedly one of the most creative. Even the disc's packaging is one of a kind. Though it took me more than a few listens, this ended up being one of the most pleasant surprises of 2006. I'd highly recommend giving it a listen.