Imagine you’re in a neurotic dream-state. You push through crowds that propel past you with their hive-mind purpose, all the while you weave through the dimly lit streets and alleys of this place that’s comfortably unfamiliar.
You close your eyes and upon opening them, the crowds are gone and all that’s left is you. You’re anxious but oddly at peace and everything’s kind of okay… or is it?
This is what IC-01 Hanoi, the latest album by Unknown Mortal Orchestra feels like.
By now I figured there wasn’t much that the enigmatic Unknown Mortal Orchestra could do to catch me off guard. That said, IC-01 Hanoi might be as close as they get.
IC-01 Hanoi is UMO’s second album of 2018 following Sex & Food – a collection of songs that tread between psych-dipped RnB and static, gear-driven mayhem. This seemingly impromptu album delivers a personal decompression from Sex & Food, with the omission of the potent lyricism that Nielson usually graces us with. In its place he has crafted a collection of sonic narratives that latch onto your psyche and drag you into an abyss where the air is thin and tension is rife.
The absence of lyrics is by no means the only divergence this album has from UMO’s previous discography. IC-01 Hanoi creates a brooding and ominous sensory overload that exasperates a strangled beauty, especially showcased through the brass instrumentation played by Nielson’s father, Chris.
As well as inviting his dad to blow some horns, Nielson’s brother Kody adds his touch along with local musician Minh Nguyen, who brings some instrumental authenticity to the album that was recorded in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The explosive opening track, Hanoi 1, creates a false sense that Nielson might follow tack with his previous records. That idea is short-lived, with the bite-sized opener slipping into Hanoi 2, which feels like the real invitation into the record. The heartbeat-like kick resuscitates the album from its breathless intro, re-born into a semi-awake state like audio-induced sleep paralysis.
There’s a spiritual, ghostly atmosphere in this new trail that UMO has walked down, dizzyingly intoxicating yet isolating at the same time. Anxiety-inducing intrusions of sharp saxophone are met with pulsating synths and sporadic drums.
Nielson’s reflections of his own internal worlds have long been the biggest vice for his creative output, with IC-01 Hanoi acting as a full actualisation of where his self-explorative other worldliness can take him.
Space-creating tracks like Hanoi 3 ground the record with a mystical sincerity, opening up some room to breathe before diving back into darker realms of sound. Nguyen haunts the track, the beautiful playing of her sáo trúc (a traditional Vietnamese flute) illuminating the dense forest of music in which this record was forged, like trickles of sunlight beaming through gaps between the foliage.
To some extent I feel that this LP carries a similar sentiment. It’s a platform for UMO to create space between the previous records, potentially defining a more conceptual new direction moving forward.
There are spaces throughout IC-01 Hanoi that are less receptive to the ear and seem to have a desire to ward off predictability, creating a splintering effect as a consequence. Dub-like droning bass and erratic drums that sting like pelts of rain showcase this idea on Hanoi 5, however this criticism is nowhere near enough to taint this record for me.
The close to ten-minute track, Hanoi 6, acts as the vertebrae to the rest of the album, binding it together as an avant garde piece of melancholic jazz that ends with the sound of a deep breath. Navigating between breathlessness and boundless space is an integral part of this record and, to me, seems like a reflection of Nielson’s state of being. Slipping from one creative canyon to the next, bringing along his canvas and splattering it with music in between gulps of air.
There’s something to be said about artists who dig deep to expose channels within themselves that they borrow for art. To mine vulnerability for creativity. It can be equally as draining as it can be rewarding, and it seems that Nielson consistently dances the highwire on each release he offers, with IC-01 Hanoi being no different.
If this record is anything to go by, the limits of exploration for UMO are boundless. Now we just buckle in, wait and see where the next chapter takes us.