Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II


Psychadelia has come leaps and bounds as of late. Not only has it garnered such an ever-increasing popularity amid the fans of contemporary rock and independently-guised outfits on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond), but it's also paved the way for some of the freshest and most exciting sounds to itself garner a need for deeper development and investigation in a genre that often tries too hard to go beyond stratospheric. Unknown Mortal Orchestra come then, at a time where evident influence in cosmic rock and psychedelic experimentation is afoot. Having originated from the infamous starting point for many a band attempting to get their music to the masses, the increasingly-used Bandcamp, the US three-piece have seen their simple one-track release that would be Ffunny Ffrends, usher in a wider-scale debut that may not have been the lengthiest and time-investing for its listeners, but in all actuality, demonstrated some of the freshest sounds in independent rock we've come to expect, in recent years, from the likes of The Horrors, Tame Impala...hell, even MGMT to an extent. Nearly two years to the day of their self-titled debut, the simply-titled 'II' sees the band explore even distantly laced sounds, elements of progressive rock and krautrock surfacing.

Starting off with From The Sun, audio swooshes in from a height into what is a humble plucking of guitars, leading swiftly into lead singer Ruban Nielson's filtered transmissive passage of voice. There are faint string instrumentations popping up now and again and it makes for a fitting ambience of an environment for when the track begins to build momentum, lo-fi percussion soon giving more of a secluded backdrop to a piece that feels pretty content with itself, given how darkly and noir its lyrics tend to come off as. 'If you need to, you can get away from the sun' Nielson repeats in folk-like sweeps of melting guitars and shaken percussion. Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark) by contrast, has more of an immediate and direct intention and its production certainly feels a lot more invested in, even if the lo-fi appeal tends not to waver too far from visibility. But it's key ingredient, again, is guitar work. Instead, however, the patterns are shorter, repeated, but much better at conjuring more of a rhythm. Notes loop and find themselves hanging as if in submission, and it only adds a sense of comforted placement for the vocals to gently sail through the track's clouded ushering of sound.

Admittedly, I'm not the biggest fan of lo-fi production, or even the very concept of deliberately holding back on the production side of music. And while I do initially suspect this music will be following the same pattern of mixing and engineering of its sounds, that by all means, doesn't take away from Unknown's sense of enjoyment and flourish with these hazy, foggy alternatives to guitar work or drum patterns. And it's that (almost limited) usage of traditional instrumentation that will keep listener's excited. So Good At Being In Trouble follows a fairly simple lead of chord deliverance and played notation, and yet the way tones linger and echo amid the space of the music adds something of a warming mood to the track. Above all, the jaggedly descending playing of guitar that appears on numerous occasion gives Nielson's vocals that well-worked opportunism in expressing itself, and it's that build-and-lead to and fro that, for such a simple track structurally, gives it a lot more credential overall. By the time One At A Time enters the fray however, we get a clear picture of the band's krautrock enthusiasm, jamming guitar leads and rhythmic drum work making out like something pulled straight from Can's latest compilation release. There remains though, some intent on expanding these ideas and the harmonics of lyrics make for some interesting dynamics amid the wailing and jamming of the instruments behind them.

The great thing here, and this might be a similar case to such bands, is that these guys are no aged relics or musicians with more history behind them than they do studio albums. Their youth is what works in their favour, and the somewhat care-free attitude that comes through on their melodic work is clear to see. The song's topics and subject matter do have less of a clear or straight-forward connectivity with the music's overall objectivity, but it's evident the listener will be more appealed to the sounds rather than the words, which in most cases often get blurred or obscured by the production. With a track like No Need For A Ladder, the band find themselves completely in rhythm mode, fuzzy guitars and monotonous drum work reminiscent of any classic Neu! outing. But again, the vocals don't seem to add or even engage thoroughly with the music being outputted. Rather, they simply waver in and out of appearance, simply existing rather than making themselves known. I would love this track more had it been primarily instrumental, and it's a shame to admit that vocals, if anything, somewhat tarnish what drive or momentum the music sustains.

But with the seven-minute highlight of the album (track length-wise perhaps) in the shape of Monki, the band delve deeper into this spacious psychedelic trip they've been almost building up to through every low fidelity layer after another. Vocals have more of a connectivity with the progression and deliverance of the music, but they still manage to uphold some sense of control and texture. The pacing itself is quite somber and relaxed, guitars slightly wobbling in distant echoes as the accompanying bass smothers itself across the mix in all its opaque and muddy tones. The track thereafter continues to drift between these secluded passages of minimalism and seclusion, and while it does run dangerously close to repetition in the latter parts, for a seven-minute piece, it does well to keep listener's attracted. Faded In The Morning begins as something of a leap in time both backwards and forwards, to the 90s with all its rowdy unleashing of alternate rock deliverance, even if the vocals keep their lo-fi placement. And while it's not the most experimental or spectral of these album's tracks, the jamming nature of guitars creates something of a nostalgia for Anglo-speaking bands of past. Secret Xtians then, as the album's final track, returns to that familiar ground of pop-like lyricism alongside its folk-influenced tone and lo-fi deliverance. As a result, the three-minute piece amid its formulaic familiarity, feels the more welcomed and approachable sound in contrast to the band's previous experimentation and venture into new sounds.

But the ideas put forth on 'II' certainly deserve some lasting time to look over and return to. Unknown Mortal Orchestra may appear to be cast from the bedroom-dwelling scenario of band-mates mingling around a room full of computers and intentionally-set recording preferences, but it doesn't come between them and an album such as this that does as much exploring as it does self-discovery. As to where the trio should go next - or perhaps, should establish their core aesthetics - it, at least, cements the band's knack for intriguing, pleasing psychedelic tones. Perhaps the choice in audio production may come as the fork in the road for newcomers, but at the very least, it's one of the better sounding records that makes use of this decision without coming across as deliberate for the sake of being different. On their sophomore album - an album, I'll remind you, that needed to stand up to the acclaim that was their debut - there is of course change and consistency. The variation may be subtle and far from obvious the first time round, but digging deep enough, the real beauty in the band's music becomes clear. It's enjoying to hear, but more-so when you realize the band find their own seeded level of joy in delivering it.
~Jordan

7.7

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