It had been 6 months since our ‘Ffunny Ffriends’ Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their last full-length album, the contemplative and empathetic Sex and Food, and a further three years since they released the bright, brilliant, and vulnerable Multi Love, which rocketed the band to critical acclaim. As a long-time fan of the psychedelic group, I was naturally excited at the prospect of their new release, the instrumental album IC-01 Hanoi, named after the Vietnamese city where the band recorded many of their songs from Sex and Food.
The songs of IC-01 Hanoi are not named, so much as they are numbered Hanoi 1-6, similar to Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. Like Lamar’s 2016 release, this collection of songs is less of a project and more of a sample of other tracks made around the same time as their previous album. Unlike that compilation, none of these songs hold much substance past their experimental value.
none of these songs hold much substance past their experimental value
The creative quartet flirt with many different genres throughout IC-01 Hanoi. Sometimes this works brilliantly, through tracks such as ‘Hanoi 3’, during which the traditional Vietnamese instruments such as the Sáo Trúc flute and the đàn môi, can be heard, played by musician Minh Nguyen. It’s a fantastic surprise for any western fans that may be unfamiliar with Vietnamese music; a simple, perhaps more traditional song that cuts through the middle of the album with its outright difference in tone. Yet despite its intriguing sound, the fan within me longed to hear something with more of the band’s sonic identity: something kooky, yet clearly psychedelic. This desire was met very briefly by the contrastingly dark, thudding, funky krautrock instrumental, ‘Hanoi 4’, which is perhaps the most listenable track on the album, with its thick, movie-worthy atmosphere blended with all the swagger of Sex and Food’s ‘American Guilt’.
a fantastic surprise for western fans unfamiliar with Vietnamese music
This is Unknown Mortal Orchestra at their most palatable on the LP, yet in comparison to previous hit songs, such as the kaleidoscopic ‘Multi Love’ and the gently groovy ‘Hunnybee’, the highlights of IC-01 Hanoi remain a disappointment. Not because they are instrumental, but because even their best songs lack a coherent structure or an earworm hook. They can only really be appreciated for pushing musical boundaries.
Indeed, the first four tracks are the more appealing songs in the project, yet following the alluring ‘Hanoi 4’, the album swiftly goes downhill as their exploratory tendencies get progressively more exhausting. The 9-minute ‘Hanoi 6’ claims to take direct influence from Miles Davis’ divisive jazz fusion album On the Corner, with some clear krautrock inspirations, and it is impenetrable. It is confusing as to why they would cite Davis’ ‘On the Corner’ as an inspiration anyway; the album, originally attempting to attract young 70s’ folk back to jazz by mixing it with funk, is difficult and haphazard. While ‘Hanoi 6’ is certainly smoother than its influence, it remains something of a sensory overload. The fact that Hanoi 6 was released as a single is utterly bewildering to me considering, not only its length, but it’s lacking structure. I can only assume they thought it was an impressive piece of music, but as the track climaxes around the 8-minute mark, it is merely a squealing saxophone solo. Needless to say, it went over my head.
Needless to say it went over my head
Towards the end of the album it becomes increasingly clear that IC-01 Hanoi is not a cohesive piece, and that is far from its intentions: it is more of an experimental jam session. This doesn’t particularly operate as a work of art, yet overall, you cannot deny the impressive scope of ideas brought together in IC-01 Hanoi. If anything, it is more of a musical postcard for die-hard fans who see no evil in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s discography. I highly doubt you’ll find your next favourite Unknown Mortal Orchestra song here (I certainly didn’t), but you will find a myriad of interesting ideas that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the music industry.