For most, following up ‘Multi-Love’, 2015’s glittering wonderland of technicolour digi-pop, would have been an almighty challenge. Thankfully, with this year’s ‘Sex and Food’, New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra made expectedly light work of what could have been an insurmountable task.
The group’s fourth LP – a mellower, less angst-ridden proposition than a predecessor formed in the cold shadow of frontman Ruban Nielson’s traumatic polyamorous experiences – may occasionally fall short of their towering magnum opus, but it’s still a strikingly good record in its own right, teeming with insatiably groovy nods to traditional funk without undoing its lo-fi allegiances. Its hook-laden tunes, delicately laced with soul, sparkle and tranquillity, produce an immensely rich addition to what has quickly become the most listenable of modern discographies.
It’s from these sessions that “IC-01 Hanoi” originates. As a quick-fire follow-up to its April-released older brother, it’s a very different beast to the tidy studies in pop-tinged neo-soul that Unknown Mortal Orchestra are best known for.
Seven purely instrumental tracks bear all the hallmarks of a band taking some downtime between recording and playing shows, and within its sophisticated, vocal-less tapestries, actually becomes the sound of Nielson and band expressing themselves more freely than ever before.
Although the talented lead singer’s honeyed falsetto is occasionally missed, the record still manages to charm with an effortless blend of free-form experimentalism and heady fuzz-toned guitar, a slick marriage of ideas perhaps most prevalent on the winding melodies and rhythmic crackle and fizz of ‘Hanoi 2’.
‘Hanoi 3’ bursts forth with smoky Eastern flavourings – betraying its conception in a Vietnamese studio with a talented local musician – the best example of the band’s impossibly easy ability to imbibe the sonic patterns of other cultures into their own distinctive style.
Throughout ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ you sense Nielson’s proper calling as a prog musician, a true innovator no longer chained to the necessity of making easily-digestible, if notably ambitious, pop music.
It’s there in the bulging bass and luscious horns of ‘Hanoi 5’ and the crunching, shadowy funk of ‘Hanoi 1’; a deliberately insular record that doesn’t feel obliged to satiate the aural requirements of an existing fanbase, and one that disregards external pressures and expectations in its gleeful insouciance.
Simply, a self-indulgent odyssey that gives itself over to the most aloof of experimental whims, a stunning showcase of the band’s wonderful musical trickery without fear of judgement or backlash.
It’s this lack of compulsion, and all-pervading avoidance of inhibition, that makes the release such a joy to behold.
Never before have the band, even on the magical Motown-isms of ‘Multi-Love’, so blatantly paid homage to their influences, and Miles Davies’ fading fingerprints are recognisable all over the record’s mellifluous forays into the avant-garde.
‘Hanoi 6, carefully draped in further Pink Floydian mind-fuzz, best underlines the debt ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ pays to its envelope-pushing idols.
As a work born inside relaxed environs, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s fifth allows its creators’ true jazz spirit, uncaged and uninhibited, to emerge in its fullest form.
It is a masterful meeting of murky textures and hypnotic beats. It is, in its severe unrestraint, the album that Nielson, and his overly-capable band, have always been destined to make.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘IC-01 Hanoi’ is released on Jagjaguwar Friday 26 October 2018.
Words: Dan Owens