February 6, 2013

Test Spins: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II

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“Isolation can put a gun in your hand.” These words echo fuzzily throughout “From the Sun,” the hypnotizing opening track of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sophomore release, enigmatically titled II. Ruban Nielson, UMO’s frontman and lead guitarist, has surely exposed himself to the highs and lows of psychedelia: In the gap between his group’s two releases, he has notoriously experimented heavily with psychedelic drugs, testing the spectrum of hedonism and solitude. It is no surprise then, that in his newest release, these two themes collide and play off of each other, often with some fascinating results.

To try to describe II would be a disservice to the material. Like many recent releases, the group attempts to bring a psychedelic sensibility into the 21st century, fusing the sounds of experimental bands of the `60s and `70s with hints of blues, funk and, on a few occasions, faint echoes of classical music.  Sure, this sort of experimentation was closer to the cutting edge of rock a few years ago. But, unlike other recent experimental ventures, II manages to create an unvarnished and unpretentious soundscape that consistently defies expectation. Even more impressive is the fact that unlike other lo-fi indie artists, Nielson actually has chops. His surprising chord progressions and textured fiddling adds just enough bite to each track without taking away from other elements.

This isn’t to say that II is perfect. The album was produced with a much larger budget than its predecessor, UMO’s eponymous first release, resulting in tracks that rely too much on gimmickry to achieve the psychedelia it aims for. Much of the middle section of the album is weaker than the opening and closing sections; here, the group tends to rely too much on repetitive, droning phrases. Overall, though, II is an exciting release that reveals the potential of this group to expand upon an important niche in modern indie music.

Original Author: Sam Bromer