Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra accomplishes instrumental artistry on ‘IC-01 Hanoi’

Photo courtesy of Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Story by Max Leach / Contributing Writer

Earlier this year, Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their fourth album, “Sex & Food.” Adding to their repertoire of groovy, lo-fi, psychedelic dreamscapes, “Sex & Food” captured the underpinnings of frontman Ruban Nielson’s world travels. From their avant-garde music videos to their minimal-yet-soulful techniques, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has developed a name for themselves around the world. This new instrumental and improvisational album was recorded alongside “Sex & Food” in Vietnam. While some listeners may search for familiar themes between the two, or in comparison to any of UMO’s discography, the beauty of “IC-01 Hanoi” is that it is left open for interpretation.

The opening track of “IC-01 Hanoi” takes an instantaneous dive into an experimental territory – one where basses convulse and guitars screech. It’s a place that’s strangely familiar to many of UMO’s other work. The upbeat and delirious repetition of this track seems to intently dismantle an emotional connection that listeners may have grown accustomed to. Instead, Nielson hints that this simplistic, yet explorative instrumentation can be expected for the rest of the album.

The short and sweet introduction is quickly abandoned and transforms into something much more complex. Layers of synth and mind-altering guitar effects form a peculiar, spaced out medium in which Nielson is able to connect with the listener again. The rhythmic plucks of one guitar serve the intricate and vulnerable solos of another. The melancholic texture of his playing and the synthesizers behind it prove that Nielson can maintain the connection that his lyrics would’ve built. Toward the end of the track is where the Vietnamese influence behind the album becomes apparent as native instruments creep into the mix to sustain the groove.

The influences are seemingly revealed at full-force in “Hanoi 3.” However, an array of Vietnamese flutes offer a clarity that relieves the tension of the previous song. The track paints a vivid picture of mystical and cloudy landscapes of Vietnam and appropriately builds into the pulsing and groovy “Hanoi 4.” The thumping of the bass drum is accompanied by an odd guitar technique, where Nielson seems to be tapping his guitar with a slide instead of actually sliding. A spiraling oscillator also weaves into the track, an electronic sound that almost forces you to bop your head to it.

The page is quickly turned to “Hanoi 5” without skipping a beat. Still pulsating, the bass takes the lead, and instead, drums become more sensitive to the reverberating guitar that marches on. As tension builds, an improvisational whirlwind takes off. A jazzy guitar solo leads into one of my favorite parts of the album, the unexpected trumpet solo, played by Ruban Nielson’s father. This solo plays call and response with yet another synthesizer, offering a sonic landscape that can only compare to the psychedelic, jammed-out productions of Pink Floyd. This full-fledged jazz jam is finished off by a drum solo.

“Hanoi 6” is the masterpiece of the album – a 10-minute long reverie that builds on Nielson’s melancholic and estranged guitar. His guitar playing on the album as a whole encapsulates the human qualities of the music, the rest of which remains otherworldly. With Vietnamese-inspired sounds in the background, the track ascends into sonic mania, topped off with more brass playing by Chris Nielson. The squawking saxophone and explosive drums transcend into a hypnotic blend of jazz, psychedelic and world music. “Hanoi 7” is a counterpoint and continuation of where we left off on the second track and slows down until it crumbles into sheer, ambient nothingness.

“IC-01 Hanoi” accomplishes the style of artistry and complexity that we always new Unknown Mortal Orchestra had. Although it may be stripped of lyrical chronicles and qualities that are found in their other albums, the album still displays their disposition. At a time where the world seems over-saturated with everyone’s individual opinions and narratives, “IC-01 Hanoi” allows the listener to maintain their own while gaining an understanding of where UMO is headed.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Sydney Wagner, email

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