Music Reviews
Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra Unknown Mortal Orchestra

(Fat Possum) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

Every so often, artists seemingly come out of nowhere without the slightest trace of back-story. Behind the cryptic profile of a user made Bandcamp page, the shadowy identity of Unknown Mortal Orchestra unlocked a time capsule dated 1968 with the soul infused How Can U Luv Me, a psychedelic jive too competent to have been made in our day and age. With its rhythmic interplay and kaleidoscopic arrangements, it made more sense to assume that it could’ve been a long lost outtake borne out of the glorious days of beat-driven soul.

When details emerged that the man behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra was Ruban Nielson, former guitarist of Mint Chicks, the message was finally decoded. It even made sense – having dabbled with botched experimental noise and bizarre instrumental textures, the cult New Zealand act was notorious for nefariously erecting compositions out of its own ass. And this was way before skuzzy no-fi acts like Wavves and Jay Reatard popularized it; it was another sad case of a promising band that was ahead of its time, or perhaps, too eclectic for its own good. Looking back, hints of UMO become gradually more noticeable – Nielson must’ve conceived Hot on Your Heels, a trippy number that blends the warped face of British Invasion with unspoiled pop choruses.

So even if the idea of an extraterrestrial being, who comes to Earth with his sharpened knowledge of American funk in hopes of gaining human acceptance, sounds more amusing, the real story at hand is that of a Kiwi expat who’s been making psychedelic lo-fi recordings in Portland. Close enough. And what’s even more foreign is that fact that he actually manages to extract the core basics of bands like Sly and the Family Stone and Funkadelic and translate it into his own reading. Nowadays, the concept of funk has been stripped out of its danceable core – it slightly persists in jam bands that specialize in groove-based jazz (Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Galactic) or artists who’ve managed to breakthrough with their distinctive genre fusions (Jamiroquai, Beck). And since the popular form of funk urbanized into modern day R&B or hip-hop bands, the terrain is mostly clear for Nielson to revisit some pre-Carter funk in its purest form.

That said, UMO is no less guilty in bringing about a different orientation to funk’s tattered image. The plain fact that Nielson intentionally clouds these jams in pastel colored analogue points to inevitable pastiche. In Ffunny Frends and Thought Ballune, Nielson compartmentalizes equivalent musical concepts until grabbing a firm grasp of what he’s really aiming for. So there’s a naiveté present, especially in the way Nielson implements cyclic choruses with hardly any variations to distinguish its continuous rhythms. Once he comes up with a breakbeat and a badass sounding riff, he’ll stick around to it until it makes its final run-around.

Like wheedling out the spare remnants of a bygone era, UMO stands as a rather unique endeavor that packs plentiful guitar riffs and sample-based techniques befitting of the funk tag. Then again, they aren’t exactly sticklers to a particular design – Bicycle will transmit a booming bass and some light wah-wah guitars amidst a fuzz tone that would make Todd Rundgren proud, while Little Blue House exerts Nielson’s unusually soulful voice as a sun splashed arrangement intertwines with some minor-key chord progressions. And these are the more conventional moments on record; by its middle half, they take the liberty of broadening their unvarying pattern for better and for worse. Though peculiar in its own right, Nerve Damage! makes an unexpected arrival midway with some wacko talk box vocoder effect, adding insult to injury with a stinging garage riff that detracts its overall chill mood in similar light to how Beck nearly butchered Odelay with Minus.

Like many Internet-bred bands, Unknown Mortal Orchestra lays a hand on an elapsed moment in time with both artful flair and playful provocation. Nielson isn’t concerned on making dramatic changes to a sound that magnetizes instant likeability when acknowledged – just like the funk greats, he doesn’t fiddle on its unadorned foundation so he can emphasize on performance. That next step could be anyone’s guess, but Boy Witch’s slathering, yet hypnotic effects construe that he may test drive either avant-garde prog or classic rock n’ roll. That’s not to say that Nielson himself doesn’t know exactly where he’s headed, since it often seems like he’s crossbreeding his favorite acts until finding his niche. Without a doubt, Nielson’s not trying to point a dot in unexplored territory – he possesses an x-factor rarely matched by musicians who regurgitate past musical styles.  Consider his second coming as still nascent, but full of erudite passion.