Ruban Nielson arrived on the indie music scene back in 2010 with his Unknown Mortal Orchestra project in an air of mystery. This lo-fi project made songs that sounded as if they’d been locked in a storage locker for 40 years; musty, muffled tracks that were equally built for grooving and for dropping out. Garage rock with a hint of the mystical. You could almost smell the incense as “Ffunny Ffriends” played over the Hi Fi.
With each release Nielson brought UMO’s sound out of the darkness and into the light, albeit black light. He also delved into more personal stuff like mental health, relationships(in-particular polyamory with Multi-Love), and of course experimenting with chemicals. But what always remained, whether it was grainy or grand production, was the solid musicianship and his fluid guitar playing.
On Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s newest album V, all of what came before remains, but with more emphasis on instrumentation. The songs are more complex and more apt to expand a bit, which only emphasizes Nielson’s love for the jam.
V opens on the gritty pop of “The Garden”, accentuating Nielson’s knack for tasteful chord structures, almost jazz in spirit, and his talent for peppering melancholy and longing over the proceedings. His guitar playing is fluid and, dare I say, masterful. Bits of Prince come through in his solo. “Gulity Pleasures” leads with a boxy drum part and phase-accented guitar. Nielson’s vocal phrasing is choppy with intent, and the subtle horns give it an almost Stevie Wonder feel. “Meshuggah” has a swing that’s reminiscent of Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and I’m here for it.
The last official release from UMO was 2018’s IC-01 Hanoi, which was an instrumental album recorded in Vietnam. It showcased the band’s love for jazz, Krautrock, and experimental music and very much had a Bitches Brew vibe. “The Widow” has that going for it, delving into both fusion and 70s soul. It’s a stunning display of musicianship and songwriting.
Over the course of 14 tracks UMO cover it all; from the groove pop of “Weekend Run” to the slow motion funk of “Nadja” to the folksy acoustic of “I Killed Captain Cook” to the Grateful Dead vibes of album closer “Drag”. No musical rock has been left unturned.
With V Ruban Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra prove to be one of the most exciting bands still making music just under the radar. Where human beings in a room together making sound with instruments is where it’s at. -J Hubner