I can’t remember if I saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra first or if I discovered them through Dan Williams’ recommendation. When we asked for our musician friends (he plays drums in Art Vs Science) for their picks of the year in December 2011, a bunch of them went for Metronomy, M83 and SBTRKT, but it was Williams who stuck by this freaky Kiwi-American hybrid, describing their breakout hit ‘Thought Ballune’ – and indeed their sound – so perfectly in so few words that I feel like anything I say about them now is going to look ridiculous. It was shortly after we received all the submissions that I attended our annual ‘local’ festival, Homebake, which UMO, thanks to the loose definition of ‘Australian’ which extends across the sea to singer Ruban Nielson’s Auckland and allows us to claim Kimbra as ours, were playing at. They promptly blew my mind, for many of the same reasons that they blew other minds in the months before. There’s some sort of fascinating, tightly coiled aggression which you can only really sense when you see them bust this out live, sitting just below the woozy filters, falsetto and funk drum samples. Given that Ruban and his brother famously used to bring chainsaws to shows when they were in punk band Mint Chicks, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Williams was dead-on – it sounds like nothing else. I love it.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound a bit like what would happen if you applied the production principles of a ’70s band of shaggy-haired misfits to a more measured, well-paced punk-funk band. Scratch that, they just sound like a really tight rock band, period. The grooves are delicious as they are measured; spilling across the bars into two and four bar phrases and matched exactly by Nielson’s somewhat-shouty/somewhat-sweet tenor that’s cloaked in a considerable amount of fuzz, but not enough to make it inaudible by any stretch. With that fat, warm bass holding down the riff whenever the guitar goes off on another trip, it’s pretty much the perfect rock trio and just shows you how you can get it right with nothing but the right players and some very good harmonic ideas. Even while the crackle of lo-fi recording threatens to tear Nielson’s voice into a billion megabits of sound in the chorus, it definitely adds character to the melody. And then there’s those drums. You seriously could have picked up a Motown vinyl or Clyde Stubblefield-assisted hit from the 50s or 60s and plonked it straight in there, that’s how old-school it seems. The snare has that exact same gated effect on it and the cymbals swoosh out in the same way as all those great LPs did back in the day. With the exception of Tame Impala, I haven’t heard many bands actually make the effort with retro-fitting their drums and bass with the same fiendish eye for detail as these guys. And fair enough, because it’s a major undertaking. Recording it is just the beginning.
I’ve realised now in retrospect that I ignored all of the hype around this band as it was growing around me because I mistook them for another band with a similar name (Manchester Orchestra) who I simply couldn’t stand. It lands me in that convenient situation where I am only recently discovering their music properly, completely divorced from all of the original noise and guided only by my ears, which tell me that all those tastemakers were onto something. There’s so much music out there that sometimes that when you’re looking for something to listen to, more esoteric stuff gets lost by the wayside in a sea of alphabetized digital names. So I’m going to do myself a favour and go out and buy this on CD. You should, too.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘Ffunny Ffrends’