Review of II Album by Unknown Mortal Orchestra

A name like Unknown Mortal Orchestra might suggest an army of classically trained musicians shrouded in suspense. The reality of course, is even more enticing. Essentially the brainchild of Ruban Nielson, a formidable guitar player and songwriter who initially cut his teeth alongside brother Kody in highly revered experimental combo The Mint Chicks. Ever since the delightfully mysterious 'Ffunny Friends' appeared online three years ago followed twelve months later by the low-key release of the band's eponymous debut, critical acclaim has followed Unknown Mortal Orchestra at every turn. 

Unknown Mortal Orchestra II Album

Interestingly, when the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra record appeared in the summer of 2011, the psychedelic (or "psyche" as its come to be known) revival hadn't yet come to fruition. Which in a round about way makes Nielson and his two cohorts - bass player Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare - innovators. Comparisons arrived thick and fast with the likes of Ariel Pink and Animal Collective, and while it's difficult not to detect the obvious similarities with either, there's a much deeper range of influences at bay here than merely Pitchfork's flavours of the decade.

Devouring an array of reference points stretching back four decades or more, Nielson has crafted a follow-up befitting of the word psychedelia. Rather than writhe around in a vat of cringeworthy pastiche, 'II' represents one of the most forward-thinking long players to come out of the genre's recently discovered second wind. At times an adventurous voyage of discovery, Nielson and co. concocting long and winding passages via the spirit of Hendrix and Garcia all the time casting one eye on the future as they go. What makes 'II' even more of a sumptuous melting pot is that almost every one of the eleven pieces contained within it find themselves bursting with a pop-tinged zeal sadly lacking in many of their equally feted peers works.

Take lead single 'Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)' for example. Owing as much to Lenny Kaye discoveries The Chocolate Watch Band as it does new kids on the block Temples or Allah Las, Nielson declaring "I'd fall to the bottom and hide til the end of time", his vocal drenched in layers of effects to the point he actually sounds as if he's singing from the bottom of the ocean. Waywardly experimental yet melodic all the same, it epitomises Unknown Mortal Orchestra's boundary straddling pervasiveness to a tee. 'So Good At Being In Trouble' takes the blueprint Tame Impala instilled so elegantly on their 'Lonerism' opus, only injecting it with a dose of soul George Clinton or Sly Stone would approve of. Meanwhile 'One At A Time' takes the riff from 'Crosstown Traffic', serves it through a reverb-heavy blender transforming it into a futuristic two-and-a-half minutes worth of infectious pop. 

At times, 'II' strips off and lays itself bare. Opener 'From The Sun' taking the form of an apologetic acoustic lament ("Isolation, it can put a gun in your hand") while Beefheart inspired 'The Opposite Of Afternoon' sounds like a throwback from another era entirely, its analogue production conveying nostalgic overtones. Elsewhere, 'Faded In The Morning' combines glitchy mathrock with early eighties guitar overdubs Billy Duffy or Reg Smithies would be proud of, while the seven-and-a-half minutes instrumental jam 'Two Generations Of Excess' liquidizes the stoner rock template somewhat for a more loose-limbed approach. 

In short, 'II' is the perfect summer record yet adaptable for all seasons, and while not household names just yet, Unknown Mortal Orchestra will be anything but by the time 2013 draws to a close.

Dom Gourlay

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