Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – IC-01 Hanoi

Over the course of 2015’s Multi-Love and 2018’s Sex & Food, Ruban Nielson has flaunted an arresting ability and penchant for portraying the agonising complexities of modern social life. From the polyamorous self-doubt of the former to the internalised anxiety of the latter, Nielson’s stories manipulated the familiar into something hallucinogenic, and the extraordinary into something relatable.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - IC-01 Hanoi artwork

Anyone thinking this record, an instrumental outing of improvisation made while Unknown Mortal Orchestra were recording Sex & Food in Vietnam, might see those themes left behind with Nielson’s lyricism will find themselves quickly disabused of the idea. Admittedly, the frantic and frenetic opening track of IC-01 Hanoi, with its mud-churning bass and drums and wild wailing guitar, might hint at some emotionally disconnected musical free-play ahead.

But as soon as ‘Hanoi 2’ creeps into action, delicately plodding synth steps providing a canvas for Nielson’s lonesome guitar, a sense of isolation and alienation begins to manifest. The sonic distance between the sounds coming from the guitar and those of the delicately picked Vietnamese Ðàn Môi tells a story all of its own. This is the long late night road in a foreign country, stretching off into darkness and stillness. The track’s underlying tension makes for compelling but sometimes sorrowful listening as it becomes apparent there’s as much of Nielson in this as you might find in his lyrics.

The sense of beautiful sadness embodied in the late night tension of ‘Hanoi 2’ elegantly transitions to an early morning clarity with the Sáo Trúc Vietnamese flute that introduces ‘Hanoi 3’. And even with the almost bluesy rhythm of ‘Hanoi 4’, there’s a very human sense of agitation hinted at in Nielson’s guitar work, twisted into something unfamiliar and daunting by the spiralling electronic wobbles that punctuate the track.

From ‘Hanoi 4’ to ‘Hanoi 6’ the record delves into a dark kaleidoscopic dreamscape. Relying on the electronics and Vietnamese instrumentation to deliver a sense of otherness alongside a brighter, if not warmer, atmosphere from Nielson’s guitar and the brass playing of his father, Chris, this culminates in the hypnotic nearly-10-minutes of ‘Hanoi 6’. The track climbs to frantic squawking of horns and tumbling drum rolls against a backdrop of wobbling, mesmeric twangs.

IC-01 might be bereft of the jaunty, sometimes-juxtaposed compositions that make Multi-Love and, to a lesser extent, Sex & Food so listenable despite their agitated subject matter. But in some ways, IC-01 Hanoi is Ruban Nielson’s worldview distilled to its most emotionally pure and potent, stripped of narrative or anecdote. An overarching sense of a world in which it’s so easy to feel distant is laid bare in raw musical expression. IC-01 Hanoi is the feeling of Sex & Food without the explanatory crutch of that album’s lyrics. Everything seems odd and immediate, desperate for your attention, and it’s up to the listener to navigate their own way throughout, feeling what they feel and being alarmed by what alarms them.

That that message is not so far from the tales of the complexities of a polyamorous relationship told on Multi-Love, or the insular and confused emotions manifest on Sex & Food, is a testament to how comprehensively atuned with his own world view Nielson truly is.