During sessions for their last album, this year’s Sex & Food, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson was keen to give voice to the extraneous ideas in his head. Sex & Food was recorded in Vietnam and the atmosphere rubbed off – IC-01 Hanoi presents its scattered off-cuts, veritable ‘Sketches of Vietnam’ in the Miles Davis tradition. Joined by his brother Kody (on drums), his Dad Chris (horns, keys) and UMO bassist Jacob Portrait, Ruban soaked in his surroundings and painted them on an audio canvas.
The Miles Davis reference is apt – large portions of this thing sound like Miles circa Bitches Brew. There has always been a jazz underpinning to UMO – Nielson is a ferocious guitarist and his live shows can enter frenzied jazz fusion territory – but never has it been as obvious as on here. Even so, he veers into unexpected realms – I came in looking for guitar histrionics and tight grooves, but instead we are presented with pieces like album highlight Hanoi 6. This is a foreboding slow build, with trumpets cascading and building to create an atmosphere best described as future noir. Adding to the mix is a key piece of this puzzle – Vietnamese musician Minh Nguyen. On this track his Đàn môi (bamboo harp) adds an extra layer of mystery. Hanoi 6 is a mysterious, at times scary trip through the jungle, and will hopefully be a leftfield addition UMO’s setlist going forward.
The rest of the album is unfortunately more undercooked. This is intentional – it sits at a trim 28 minutes and only one other track runs over three minutes. This is Hanoi 2, whose atmosphere more tightly recalls Sex & Food but with an extra layer of jazzy mystery. Nielson tackles some new guitar tones, contributing some mind-bending, exploratory, but laid back jazz solos.
The other pieces are interesting enough, with each introducing a new concept or idea. Hanoi 1 is the most aggressive but also the shortest, with a rollicking beat phased to oblivion. Hanoi 3 brings in pan pipes and is a refreshing new sound for UMO. However, the lack of motifs and the over-prodigious soloing make it more a soundscape than anything else. Hanoi 4 is synthwave without the synths, a good song to crank if you ever find yourself running from the cops.
All of these tracks, however, are more snippets than actual compositions. I would love to see the aggression of Hanoi 1 channelled in a future UMO guitar solo, or the textures of Hanoi 3 reconstituted into a pop track. Alas as standalone songs, they don’t reward multiple listens.
IC-01 Hanoi is worth its price of entry if only for Hanoi 6 alone, which is an excellent achievement. The rest of Hanoi IC-01 is well worth a listen to witness the full breadth of Nielson’s creativity, but it is decidedly unessential.