Earlier this year, I named Mr. Ruban Nielson a whacko-artiste, a man with bizarre compositional tastes and seriously aspirational wackiness.
Not just any normal, bargain-bin, hidden-cache-in-a-garden-shed wackiness but the committed insanity of the funked-in-the head artisan: a Prince-type foam-at-the-mouth sexual beast encased in stained, smoky, lo-fi glass musicality kind of wackiness—like a voyeur booth warming up on a brisk December morning in the Amsterdam, really. All the XXX bits are tastefully covered by circumstance and a thin layer of condensation. But why December? Well,why not? At the very least, something is hot and bothered in that brothel. And that’s the lo-fi way of things; a musicality that works on giving listeners a sense that the rock is rolling and that a guitar is shredding but never dissecting it clean for the office or the supermarket; instead the cuts are done dirty and fettered ragged by a rusted dildo found in, oh I dunno, a back-alley sex-shop.
Makes sense then, that Mr. Nielson and his Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their latest record from Vietnam. Yes, IC-01 Hanoi is as tatted-up as the maestro himself, and even more tattered; a fuzzed-out, low-end fusion of jazz, krautrock and Vietnamese folk instrumentation recorded in the heart of a Southeast Asian sweat box metropolis. The seven tracks on this record may hint at 2018’s trend of the year (Kanye, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Kid Cuzi, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, I mean who’s next?) but never in a million years would the precedents play like they were recorded and mastered anywhere near Hanoi. And much less does “Hanoi-1” through “7” sound like it was recorded with intent for audio fidelity. Neither do they sound like they were put to spindry in the whirly-dirly mastering machines but rather were left to dangle and sunbake between the tenements. Just one clothesline amongst many as the eyes scale the height of the apartment buildings. It’s with great skill too, as the line wiggles through scaffolding on each cut made of the native materials, bamboo wood and palm cords, and looks like it has hardly been used—a crisis of labor, really. Because given the time and attention, rock ‘n’ roll could do wonders with forays into the world of Asian folk music.
Big problem, though: because this lo-fi LP makes its name on being self-admittedly unrefined, it takes some tracks to actually pick up on the ethnic tunes. Namely two and namely the first two commit this artistic sin. It’s all a murky mise-en-scène—a neo-impressionist pêle-mêle of paint, tint and shades. It’s all very dark and very muddled. All background and little foreground. They took a brilliantly white, clean pure canvas, and then drenched it en boue, in muddy bulbous layers of grey, black and brown. Not some full chestnut marron or sloppy tortilla tan, either, but a sickly ginger brown. The opener, the creatively named “Hanoi-1,” make clear of this point by recalling the manic krautrock screech of “American Guilt” but without all the pointed punkisms. Instead it lurches in a sequined post-bop Jazz get-up.
Then, with a clunk, the record shifts down to a moody blue and imbalanced thought piece, with a slow, plodding guitar that uses all that reverb to fuzz and faff about. The scruffy, five o’clock shade instrumentation fails to do the long-player any favours—listeners would be stuck wondering where the hell this is all taking place if the record wasn’t named with such utilitarian starkness. But by “Hanoi 3,” the record is saved—and it’s Minh Nguyen’s sáo trúc, a Vietnamese sow flute made from bamboo, that does the saving. It’s not a particularly striking piece, but it does allow for the long-player to take a step back from its head-heavy flavours and actually examine what it wants to groove to in a Southeast Asian graveyard of public opinion. Injecting a little bit of that Multi-Love-era funk is just the ticket, and so on “Hanoi 4” the album reasserts itself with jungle stomp for a tropical romp and is thus the one lo-fi funk rock track on record that doesn’t wet rice noodle and squirm in the jazzy broth. But then that jazzy broth starts to pick up with spice as well—come “Hanoi 5,” Chris Nielson (forever more known as Papa Nielson) comes in with the flugelhorn to work a solo across a warbling guitar line and Brother Kody Nielson’s pitter-patter tom-tom foolery. With a flip of a switch, the record just glues itself together.
If there was a long-game to be played on this record, this was it—toying with a Miles Davis line of seemingly nonsensical sonic experimentation until finding that miracle place of otherworldly sound and space. As if this were never meant to be electric jazz fusion played in Hanoi, but rather on Olympus Mons. On the rusted backdrop, we begin to see Ruban Nielson paint a scrawling impressionist portrait of a developing metropolis where tradition still clashes with futurism on a regular basis. The guitar is that background drench of black fuzz and atmospheric chirrup. That fast moving images are tinted and pressed by the family Nielson’s prodigious playing. Papa Nielson’s saxophone mimics every movement whether by fluttering, screeching, or bellowing, picks up on the mania of rush hour traffic in a city dominated by legions of mopeds and blistering humidity, falls into the throes of the muck and the grime and the stenches and the cacophonies that make the urban jungle alive. Throw in Brother Nielson’s crunching, off-beat drums and we hear the rumble of speeding bikes, tumbling building materials, the ominous roar of feet hitting pavement, the all out-of-rhythm rhythm of a sweat-soaked cityscape. The climax of “Hanoi 6” is to jazz as Hanoi is to big cities: a heaping mass of sound and action that somehow translates into a comprehensive ball of free-jazz productivity. It’s all hustle and bustle, but with no sense of singular direction, it wants to do anything and everything and goddamn it, it does. And from there one can derive a piece of linear narrative if they want, but that’s not the point.
We’re supposed to get lost in it.
And “Hanoi 6” does a damn sight better job at communicating this then the album openers, which leave listeners having just landed and asking “what in the fuck is going on?” Too busy fiddling with the currency, toying with map and negotiating with the cabbie among a storm of sound, desperately trying to remember on what road the hotel beckons. Once they meander their way there and put down all the cumbersome culture shock and packed bag shit away, they can actually begin to enjoy themselves from “Hanoi 3” to album’s end. The only misfire is how the album under-employs flautist Nguyen—his is the single hint of a native culture swamped in modernized music trends and for a record that sells itself on being a sessionwork from Hanoi, all the billed native flavour is just… gone. Perhaps this dearth of nativity comes across as an elegy for the minority cultures lost at sea in the globalized gish-gallop of rock ‘n’ roll, or perhaps I’m just reading too much into an album that really amounts to just a glorified jam sesh with interesting thoughts, but no overarching, detail-oriented themes. The music really just goes with the motions of the setting.
It gets lost in it.
And it cacaphones it up like the late-sixties Miles Davis efforts simply because the sonic is not meant to be directed, but given a sense of livewire electricity. That the music could short out at any time should bring about a palpable excitement—a sense that the musicality is right on the edge between working and not working, yet somehow errs on working. Like a phone charging cable on it’s last limbs of life. Nefertiti, Sorcerer or Filles de Kilimanjaro, none of them are absolute masterpieces and neither is IC-01 Hanoi, but they’re not meant to be—they are merely adventurers of a sonic not yet fleshed out conventionally. There are only two differences: one, the former records are much better than IC-01 Hanoi by nature of this latter being such a veritable and undeniable jam sesh. Two, the former records-tableaux precipitated the musical masterpiece of a Dali painting that is Bitches Brew. Over the course of IC-01 Hanoi, we are only treated to the varying sketches of a family of understudies, a collection of amateur fusionists; only Papa Nielson sounds the most at home in this lo-fi funk and jazz fusion school. Both Maestro Nielson and Brother Nielson still sound like they’re caught at this jam sesh with little clue on how to play jazz and are doomed to just wing it like Jerry Garcia and John Kahn on Side Trips Voume One (key point, there is no volume two). So while these seven tracks aspire to paint on the same level as Davis, there is a clear and massive amount of work that need be done before the family Nielson merit such an honor: to have made a new-millennium jazz fusion that matches if not far outstrips a man who was miles ahead. But perhaps, the honest truth of this record impression is that my nose presses too closely to the town plan, my eyes stick too much to the road names like the white of the rice and my mind grapples with diagramming the perfect projected route of how and where this vacation trip is headed. All things vain and petty and impossible to calculate on a paltry map.
En gros, maybe the best advice I have for myself when I turn on this record is simply: “get lost it in, man.”
Album Artist: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Producer: Self-Produced with Old Man Gung-Ho
Genres: lo-fi, Jazz fusion, acid funk
- “Hanoi 1”
- “Hanoi 2”
- “Hanoi 3”
- “Hanoi 4”
- “Hanoi 5”
- “Hanoi 6”
- “Hanoi 7”