New Zealand’s psyche-soaked, r&b-infused, lo-fi garage sounding independent outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra have readily established themselves amongst the indie music scene’s most enthralling, must-listen-to acts within the past decade. Much has certainly passed since the band’s first release “Ffunny Ffriends” on Bandcamp back in 2010, and, steered by primary creative leader and vocalist/guitarist Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have captured the minds and depths of avid listeners from a variety of musical backgrounds through various sonic tools in their arsenal that function to produce a profoundly warm lo-fi sound that recruits many diverse elements of psychedelia and rhythmic naturality to sooths the wandering soul. V now marks UMO’s fifth full-length release, seeing brothers Ruban and Kody reunite once again with the support of long-time member and current bassist Jacob Portrait as well as an intimate brass accompaniment from their father Chris Nielson, and mastered to perfection by the innovative rock engineering wizard Bob Ludwig.
Perhaps the environmental factors play a significant part in how the songs on the record are presented; with the album being recorded in the locations of Palm Springs, California and Hilo, Hawaii, there certainly seems to be a sense of locality and interconnectedness that the artists feel to their surroundings when recording. The Neilson brothers really aim to immerse themselves within this lucidity and laid-back musicianship that comes with much West Coast radio-oriented rock music, and tracks like “Meshuggah” and “Weekend Run” really dish out that nostalgically imbued, warming sense of disco- and soul-influenced musicality. Opening with “The Garden”, we get this welcoming and alluring vison within the music that takes you out of your comfort zone but gently into a place of familiarity and relaxation. Similarly, songs like “In The Rear View” and “That Life” really play into this California dreamin’ state of altered reality – the synths are gorgeously harmonious as if to attach themselves to the listener’s psychical state in an effort to awaken the transcendental soul that lurks within. Whilst the ancestral “I Killed Captain Cook” really focusses on native Hawaiian traditions of Hapa Haole music, particularly within the extended guitar outro of the album’s final minutes. Furthermore, the song narrates the tale of the death of Captain James Cook by Native Hawaiians after a foiled attempt to kidnap the aliʻi nui (ruling chief) Kalaniʻōpuʻu on the island.
There is a feeling of intimacy and family dynamism that certainly captures the relaxing and classically authenticated musicianship on this record. Perhaps the brothers’ reunion in Hawaii due to numerous family instances, such as a cousin’s wedding and their uncle’s health issues, or the influence of their father Chris Neilson (whose trumpet, trombone, and tenor sax presence is most notable on tracks “Guilty Pleasures” ,“The Widow”, and “Shin Ramyun”) help to cultivate the nourishing dreamscapes and add another dimension of wonder to this multi-layered psychedelic sound. These surroundings would certainly evoke aspects of Ruban’s childhood, allowing for what is perhaps a more personal execution of UMO’s sound, reiterated from the swaying palm trees, AM radio nostalgia, and glamorization of poolside hedonism that the artist credits as something he has internalised from his early upbringing.
Other songs on this album instead display a rather dark, more enigmatic tone, perhaps to demonstrate a contrast to the brighter pictures of blue skies and relaxing cinematic textures in an attempt by the artists to imply that behind the hedonism and luxuries, there is always going to be challenges to life that we all must face and confront together. “Keaukaha”, for instance, is an instrumental piece that encompasses affective textures through guitars and synths that evokes a feverish mysticism, perhaps included as a moment of contemplation. “Nadja” is another melancholic track that leans more sedate, rhythmically, and has quite a calming instrumental feel overall; this is contrasted by the dark lyrical themes that surround Nielson’s dealings with obsession, paranoia, longing, and escapism, which make for fairly discomposed listening. Idyllic and pleasurable soundscapes certainly take hold in many of these songs, yet they’re juxtaposed by these candid, emotive themes that touch on personal aspects of Nielson’s life and experiences.
It’s quite enthralling to think of how much one’s surroundings (and the past experiences one associates with them) can shape a record in such an astonishingly intimate and profound way. It’s quite evident how V manages to take more care in articulating the Nielson brothers’ past memories and family customs in such a nostalgic and intricate manner when compared to other releases in the UMO catalogue. The relaxing and wild dynamic range of the ensemble’s psychedelic, lo-fi rhythmic sound still remains, however, and will appease longtime listeners of the band; it’s just this time the music is expressed with more honesty, melancholy, and reminiscence of Neilson’s past and present where he reflects on a world of his own and the people who have help shape that world with him.