The Final Teaser From Thom

When I first heard of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a band that, despite having two albums to its credit, is still quite below the radar, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d read that they were a Portland, Oregon band that had roots in New Zealand (which didn’t exactly make things any clearer); and that they were a trio fronted by Ruban Nielson who’d earlier been with a NZ band called The Mint Chicks (again, that was no clue to their music since I was as unaware of The Mint Chicks as I was of Unknown Mortal Orch.). I’d also read that The Mint Chicks were a “post-hardcore” band and that to my mind could mean anything that you wanted it to.

THE DIY TRIO: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s frontman Ruban Nielson has a fresh voice and his lyrics are mature and deep

THE DIY TRIO: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s frontman Ruban Nielson has a fresh voice and his lyrics are mature and deep (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

In any case, the hyphenated musical genres that are described as “post-” this and “post-” that are usually ambiguous definitions because they’re actually catch-all phrases to describe a brand of music that people have trouble describing in words that are in common currency. Hence, post-rock, post-punk, post-metal and post-almost-everything-else!

But when I first heard Unknown Mortal Orchestra (actually, I heard their second recently released album called II), I had no difficultly in instantly liking their brand of music, call it whatever you will. I also realized why their music is difficult to classify. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a trio, which makes marvelously layered music. Nielson, who sings, has a fresh voice that exudes wonder and innocence yet his lyrics are mature and deep. There is a raft of influences that I could discern but most of all there was a floating, psychedelic quality to their music. If I were to describe Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound, I’d say it comprises well-crafted music, particularly Nielson’s virtuosity on the guitar (instrument to note: the occasional appearance of a delicate acoustic guitar in an electronica band that can be rare!), songs that fuse soul and pop with psychedelia, and, above all, a light-heartedness that makes listening to them a pleasure.

II is Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album. Their first, an eponymously titled release in 2011, has a rougher feel as if it was recorded on hissy, crackling analog equipment. Even II has a DIY feel to its sound and perhaps there lies the charm of the band.

I was tipped off about Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s new supergroup, Atoms For Peace by an early February email from the W.A.S.T.E. network that is a kind of collective for fans of Radiohead and Yorke. Atoms For Peace has Yorke, of course, and also his producer Nigel Godrich, sessions drummer Joey Waronker, Percussionist Mauro Refosco and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea.

A LONG TIME IN THE MAKING: Thom Yorke’s new supergroup, Atoms For Peace, released their nine-track album, Amok, the result of three or four years of jamming (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

A LONG TIME IN THE MAKING: Thom Yorke’s new supergroup, Atoms For Peace, released their nine-track album, Amok, the result of three or four years of jamming (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

A single or two were released as teasers shortly after the email and then the nine-track album, Amok, which is actually a result of three or four years of jamming between the musicians in Atoms.

Radiohead fans will remember Yorke’s 2006 solo venture, Eraser, a fine electronic album. The more die-hard of them will also remember a track called Atoms for Peace on that album, which is also the name of the supergroup that has made Amok. Eraser was a nicely ambient album, very close to being an actual Radiohead album (as far as I know, though, none of the other Radiohead members were featured on it) but not as heavy as those can be. I could write with Eraser playing in the background; I can’t with any of Radiohead’s other albums—they all require a lot more concentration while they’re being played.

As does Amok. Flea (and this may disappoint Red Hot Chili Pepper Fans) is remarkably understated but the percussion and drums have pronounced lines. Yorke doesn’t disappoint at all, his voice is as endearing as ever—yes, sometimes characteristically incomprehensible but always compelling. Oh, and there’s a video of one of the songs, Ingenue, which is compulsory viewing. Just as the video for Radiohead’s Lotus Flower (a song off their last album, King of Limbs) was. Here too we have Yorke dancing. He’s in a three-piece brown suit and sports a long ponytail. The video is stark but, unlike in Lotus Flower, he’s not alone. More details would spoil the fun. Watch the vid!

I follow Yo La Tengo, the lo-fi upstate New York band, on twitter. And I heard of Melt-Banana from them. It’s the name of a Japanese grind-core band that makes extremely fast and noisy music that is curiously quite appealing. Worth trying. But be warned: you will hear lasers, sirens and, sometimes, very, very abrasive screams. As I told you, I got pointed to them by a band that believes in understated, almost mumbled, self-effacing songs!

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  • Shankar

    this is great! looking forward to your take on the great new jazz scene in delhi; was surprised to see acts like syncopation, fubar ghetto and drift in the capital – quality stuff. hoping that you will post more on new stuff happening in India as well.


    deepak Reply:

    @shankar, yeah I’ve seen these bands (fubar ghetto and syncopation) and they are damn good but unfortunately the market for instrumental bands isn’t that great and perhaps that’s why musicians like these don’t get much coverage. Eitherway, Delhi crowds don’t typically enjoy long improvised intelligent stuff haha. Apart from these and a few others (likeIndian Ocean) most Indian bands unfortunately are wannabes and perhaps don’t deserve the attention of a music journalist. sanjoynarayan – atoms for peace is awesome– had no clue thom yorke was up to so much on the side J.


  • PoMoGandhi

    If you like Melt-Banana then you might want to check out, among current Japanese bands, The Boredoms Fushitsusha, Boris, Acid Mothers Temple but most of all Green Milk from the Planet Orange. I look forward to a fuller post on Japanese rock from the late-1960s, perhaps one the most intriguing national variants.


  • tanwar

    Unknown Mortal Orchestra have a unique sound for sure. Personally, didn’t like Atoms for Peace much, may be because I am one of the few who stopped liking radiohead after ok computer. I mean you gotta hear some real instruments man.
    I am happy you don’t cover Indian bands on this blog much – there is nothing really original out there, just the same old nonsense like Parikrama, Themclones and ****** electronica like that DJ ‘dualist’ whatever who strums a fender while pushing buttons. The scene in Delhi is **** – take my word for it. The jazz is good I agree but syncopation, fubar ghetto etc don’t play that often – the scene is not dominated by them. Menwhopause is not bad at all and I think they even released an album