The genesis of the lo-fi psychedelic rock group Unknown Mortal Orchestra stemmed from organic interest. Ruban Nielson, the main songwriter of the band, was originally in the New Zealand power pop group The Mint Chicks. They were active from 2001 to 2010, and after the break-up, Nielson decided to move his family to America and not do music anymore. However, in the spring of 2010, he released a track titled “Ffunny Ffrends” on his bandcamp profile, with no information on who created it. It became incredibly popular over the music blogosphere and was reblogged incessantly, in attempts to find who created it. Due to the amount of interest, Nielson finally claimed the track to as by his new project, Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
The band’s self-titled debut was released in 2011 and quickly received critical acclaim. While nostalgic in nature due to its obvious 1960-70s music influence (Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc.), it featured an experimental use of the lo-fi production, the noise generated from the guitar, and space between notes to create a new take on the genre. Nielson’s guitar technique is probably one of the most unique right now. Finger-picking everything, Nielson creates vibrant harmonies with each individual chord played by creating a distinct dynamic between the bass and the treble sounds of the guitar. This can be heard in tracks like “Ffunny Ffrends,” “Jello and Juggernauts” and “Little Blu House.” When he strums, Nielson uses the root note of the chord as the bass to maintain the rhythm and the rest of the chord for the melody, which give his songs a driven break-beat feel. Tracks like “How Can U Luv Me,” “Biocycle” and “Strangers are Strange” definitely highlight that strumming pattern.
After extensive touring, Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their sophomore effort just a little over a month ago, titled II. While it features the same musical influences, which are probably even more apparent with this album, and guitar technique, the use of lo-fi production was lessened, which gives this album a more uncompressed sound compared to the debut. In addition, there is more of an R&B and funk element present, which can especially be heard in the tracks “One At A Time,” “So Good at Being in Trouble” and “Monki.” The track “So Good at Being in Trouble,” in particular, is very reminiscent of Motown era material, especially with the riff Nielson plays for every transition of the song.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s live performances are not only as accurate as their performances from inside the studio, but they highlight Nielson’s guitar playing even more. The solos and fills he played in the studio, which at times were made low in the mix, are brought to the forefront and, at times, become prolonged jams with note phrasings that always fit the song so well. Whether it’s a fast flurry or a theme or progression of notes, Nielson demonstrates his talent for not only being a skilled songwriter, but a gifted improvisationalist as well.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a band right now that features another interesting, but special take on the music of the 60s and 70s and showcases some awesome guitar work.