Unknown Mortal Orchestra are an American-New Zealand indie, psychedelic, alternative band which was started by ex-Mint Chicks singer Ruban Neilson in 2010. Neilson is accompanied on this venture by Jacob Portrait on bass and Greg Rogove on drums. And, after a solid debut in 2011 with their self-titled first album, the band has gone from strength to strength on their second outing, 2013s Unknown Mortal Orchestra II.
The band’s sound is what I would describe as being trippy neo-indie pscyhedelia, which comes right in the middle of a psychedelic rock/pop revival that seems to be in vogue these days. Although this album is not just about psychedelic music, and the music seems to go in all sorts of directions with funk, soul, prog rock and folk just some of the styles that have a heavy presence on the record, while a steady hip hop backbeat appears on most of the tracks as well. With quite an eclectic mix of styles, it is probably also suitable that the production of the album is quite lo-fi overall, something which brings to the fore the wonderful pop melodies, multi-layered psychedelic sounds and melancholic tones in Neilson’s falsetto vocals. Aside from his great vocals, Neilson’s guitar playing is also a strong feature on this album and although he is in no way a virtuoso, he does manage to mix his playing up between a more delicate textured style of playing, with a heavily distorted attack and the occasional baroque sounding flourishes.
As for the tracks themselves, well the album starts off brilliantly with “From the Sun”, a song which has an indie folk feel to it initially with some acoustic finger picking, before moving into a psychedelic pop track setting the tone for the direction of the rest of the album. This is followed by “Swim and Sleep” another psychedelic pop track which this time showcases Neilson’s diverse guitar playing with a baroque sounding guitar motif. The triple-whammy of great songs to start the album ends with one of the album’s best tracks in “So Good at Being in Trouble” which has a prog-rock undertone to it and as a song just floats along effortlessly allowing the listener to get lost in its melancholic beauty.
Things change direction again on “One at a Time” which has a bit of a funky feel to it with its heavily distorted funky guitar riff and drums, and sounds as if it could easily have been a demo for an early Funkadelic album or something similar. And, then its back again to psychedelia on the next track “The Opposite of Afternoon” which has more of a jam feel to it compared to the other tracks on the album with an extended instrumental break during the second half of the track. It is then at this point that the album begins to drift a little bit with a couple of lengthy psychedelic tracks which appear to just fill space more than anything in “Monki” and “No Need for a Leader”. This slight lul in the album is followed by the totally unnecessary token one minute instrumental “Dawn”. It is fair to say I have never understood why artists decide to include on albums totally pointless short instrumentals like this one, as they don’t add anything musically, while leaving the listener confused as to what they are hearing as they reach for the skip button. Luckily this slight drop in the middle of the album is not permanent and the album ends on a high with the psychedelic riff lade track “Faded in the Morning” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1967, and finally album closer and candidate for song of the album “Secret Xtians” which has a very infectious groove especially in the bass and drum parts.
Overall, in conclusion I would say this album is a fantastic psychedelic pop album and betters the group’s first up effort which in itself was a great album. The tracks here are groovy and melodic, and combine psychedelic pop with other styles such as folk and even classical brilliantly in a blender of musical goodness. Unknown Mortal Orchestra II is perfect listening material for summer, but would also do very nicely as a tonic through the cold winter months. Definitely one of the albums of 2013, and I cannot wait to see where they go to next.