Redbrick’s David Evans breaks down the typically mind-bending annual out-takes release from Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the brainchild of Ruben Neilson, have been creating psyched-up guitar music for the last seven years. Always pushing production to its extreme ends, Neilson has maintained a sound that, whilst rooted in simplicity at its structural base, is genuinely refreshing, innovative and constantly reinventing itself. Easily capable of producing consumer-friendly releases, as 2015’s Multi Love goes to show that the band is also well-versed in creating music more left-field and experimental.
Every December for the last five years, UMO have released half-hour long instrumentals under the ‘SB-’ series. These consist of a single track of fused-together leftover ideas produced during album sessions and rehearsals. Whilst a testament to Ruben and the band’s immense skill as musicians in their own right, these recordings generally only appeal to close fans of the band and mainly act as a window to explore wilder ideas, giving them space to breathe.
IC-01 Hanoi is the sixth release in this line of annual instrumental EPs, the major difference this time being that IC-01 Hanoi not only breaks the naming formula of ‘SB-’, but is also made up of individual tracks released as part of a fully-fledged album, compared to the single track ‘SB-’ releases. More commercial, accessible and thematic than previous instrumental jams, IC-01 Hanoi does seem to be a significant break with past traditions for the band and takes their instrumental offerings into a more developed and formal realm.
As the name suggests, the album was recorded in Hanoi, Vietnam and born from sessions for the 2018 album Sex & Food. The title isn’t just a nod to the location however, as traditional Vietnamese artist Minh Nguyen plays the sáo trúc (wood flute) and đàn môi (mouth harp – think ‘For A Few Dollars More’ theme) on the record. These distinctive instruments add huge amounts of atmosphere and really play into the piece’s foreign and exotic feel.
Listening to the record as a whole, the tracks’ dark, moody, rolling tones exude fantastic images of late-night, neon-draped city streets full of strangers. Despite being instrumental I love the way UMO manage to give each piece such distinctive feelings and emotions – whilst there is variety across the record, a strong central theme is maintained; jazz elements are much more prominent than in previous recordings and UMO’s classic, rich, otherworldly, ultra-produced sound is present in heaps.
Self-described as ‘a sonic distillation of the band’s influences in Jazz, Krautrock and the avant-garde,’ a large part of this sound could perhaps be accredited to Chris Neilson, patriarch to singer Ruben and drummer Kody, who brings lead solo instruments fungal horn, saxophone and keyboards to the record. ‘Hanoi 6’, released early as a single for the album, is a prime example of this; a soft, rolling, haunting melody provides backing for a free-form saxophone solo, climaxing to eruption and then distilling back down to darker tones. It demonstrates the jazz discipline at the fuzzy, distorted epicentre of the record and arguably makes the best use of Minh Nguyen’s otherworldly sounds.
Providing stark variation to the slow build of ‘Hanoi 6’, opening track ‘Hanoi 1’ launches the album into orbit with a driving one-and-half-minute spell of Ruben’s masterful playing atop a powering fizzing guitar riff. Whilst the opening is the most up-tempo moment of the release, the reigning in of other tracks really plays to their strength, as the climax six songs later isn’t just the result a track-long build up, but a whole album of teased potential amidst swelling instrumentals.
Ultimately however, IC-01 Hanoi’s thematic strength is its weakness. An excellent demonstration carrying a distinct sound and element across an album, the tone of the collection, whilst beautiful and emotive, is mildly repetitive. Even so, UMO’s latest offering still meets the refreshing, re-inventive standard maintained by the band. Far more than just a fan offering, IC-01 Hanoi marks a stark change in the band’s instrumental releases.
IC-01 Hanoi is available here.