Review/Listen: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - II

Psychedelia and Other Drugs: Unknown Mortal Orchestra resides squarely in the neighborhood of mind-altered rock n’ roll taken from the 60s and warped through time to stop, drop, and roll through fields of flowers and bees with kaleidoscopic inertia. On their second full-length, the simply-named II, the American-New Zealand hybrid band finds its rhythm by ramping up the woozy guitars and the bubbling bass lines, coming out with something much more expansive and satisfying than their self-titled debut album. Singer-guitarist and band leader Ruban Nielson has elevated his craft simply by tapping into the current revival of psychedelia, joining contemporaries Ty Segall, Ariel Pink, and (especially) Tame Impala‘s Kevin Parker on the strength of bright, colorful rock with enough of an edge to bring about revelations. This isn’t your grandfather’s LSD soundtrack; these are your cousin’s festival tunes, equally at peace with the outdoors as they are with the insides of the mind.

These are pop songs at heart with less distortion and more multi-tracked vocals than on their previous effort, perhaps as a result of riding the success from Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Lead single “So Good At Being In Trouble” is the closest that the band gets to their nascent roots, tapping into a simple verse riff before allowing Nielson‘s vastly underrated hook-writing ability to shine. You know what it is, it’s in the title and it repeats almost ad infinitum. Yet, it’s how he varies his tones and inflections with every recitation that gets caught in your head, long after the hallucinogens have worn off.

Additionally, Nielson‘s band members are no slackers: Jake Portrait and Riley Geare are masters of going from minimalist bedroom-type pop to thumping psych-rock at the drop of a hat, sometimes within the same minute of a song. Album opener “From The Sun” begins with a Beatles-esque guitar line, recalling “Here Comes The Sun” before throwing together a soothing chorus of Nielsons, singing from seemingly everywhere at once.  Around the 1:25 mark, snares kick in, a bass line takes a more prominent role, and somehow, you faded into a groove.

Yet it is later that the true genius of II comes to life, rearing its conked-out head to breathe musical fire among the wastelands of your headphones (this album is not for laptop speakers, trust me). “The Opposite of Afternoon” begins, innocently enough, with Nielson‘s vocals behind a chunking sequence of chords, and then there’s a quick break. Take a breath.  The next 5 minutes weave through the hills of Rifflandia. An escalating guitar run, a thumping bass, and drum rolls left and right weave in through the mix, creating what might just be the best song Unknown Mortal Orchestra has ever written. II offers some of everything; it’s bluesy, it’s psychedelic, it’s poppy. Simply put, it creates a microcosm of what makes the band successful  and smashes it together with brute force. It could be sloppy in the hands of a lesser group, but Nielson, Portrait, and Geare play off each other with the ease of a band that has conquered worlds. When the album finale, “Secret Xtians,” weaves through its final guitar solo (a solemn piece that recalls “Gimme Shelter” ), you believe that they can conquer whatever other dimension they find out there…or in their heads.

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