My instrumental album listening days go back a long way. Almost 40 years in fact. Back to the day when I handed over some pocket money to my Mam and asked her to order Jean Michel Jarre’s 'Equinoxe' from her Grattan’s catalogue. It was one of my first albums, nestled in its little black vinyl carry case alongside 'Everyone Plays Darts' and 'Tonic For The Troops' (also acquired in that same pay in instalments mail order fashion) and 'Out Of The Blue' and 'Parallel Lines' (acquired from good old fashioned record shops).
'Equinoxe' blew my mind. I’d heard instrumental music before of course, but it had all been classical stuff, played by an orchestra, trussed up in their evening suits or long dresses, playing instruments like violins, flutes and oboes. 'Equinoxe' was different. It was played on synthesisers but it sounded organic, almost liquid. The tracks had numbers (‘Equinoxe ‘1 – ‘Equinoxe 8’) rather than actual titles. And it was played by a French man, and up to this point I’d only ever heard music made by what I assumed were three French men who turned out in reality to be only two French men and one Belgian: Charles Aznavour, who I’d seen on at least one Royal Variety Performance, Sacha Distel, who I knew from his appearance on The Morecambe & Wise Show, and the over-energetic Plastic Bertrand, who turned out not to be French at all.
I moved on via Jarre’s earlier 'Oxygene' (purchased second-hand on cassette tape) to Kraftwerk’s 'Autobahn' (more instrumental in spirit than in reality), BEF’s cassette-only 'Music For Stowaways', mopping up all things Vangelis, Ennio Morricone and Mike Oldfield (even though I don’t have a quadrophonic system on which to play his 4 LP Boxed set) , Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Aphex Twin, Orbital, then on to Craig Armstrong’s beautiful 'Piano Works', pretty much anything by John Barry, Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands and Batman scores and Boards Of Canada. This is not a definitive or exhaustive list by any means.
Of course almost all of the artists listed above work almost exclusively in instrumental music and/or soundtracks. Things become really interesting, however, when artists who specialise in songs with lyrics step away from their vocal comfort zone to produce an instrumental album. Often this occurs when they are commissioned to produce a film soundtrack such as M83 for 'Oblivion', Air for 'The Virgin Suicides', Daft Punk for 'TRON:Legacy' (probably my all-time favourite instrumental album) and, more implausibly, but undeniably brilliantly, Toto for 'Dune'.
Generally speaking though, it’s seen as a little bit unusual when a band ditches the vocals and embraces the instrumental. Even more so when they do so for a full album, which is precisely what Unknown Mortal Orchestra have done for' IC-01 Hanoi', seven instrumental tracks called ‘Hanoi 1’ through to ‘Hanoi 7’ (Jean Michel Jarre style) recorded at Phu Sa Studios in Hanoi during the recording of their last album, the accomplished and impressive 'Sex & Food', which was released earlier this year.
'IC-01 Hanoi' is a late night mixture of live recorded extended experimental jazz jams. Often dark, sometimes sleazy with film-noir undertones, it’s at best a distant cousin of 'Sex & Food' and, while their differences are obvious, 'IC-01 Hanoi' works well as a companion piece to the earlier album. When it attempts to stand alone it seems a little less certain of itself. There are some genuinely impressive moments though, particularly on ‘Hanoi 4’ with its grinding, David Bowie ‘Breaking Glass’ vibe and the near ten-minute ‘Hanoi 6’ which takes its time to meander to some distant, dark corners with only a moderately too strident saxophone breaking the sombre mood.
It’s an album that grows, but only up to a point and all in all I get the impression that 'IC-01 Hanoi' is the album that the band wanted to make rather than the album that Unknown Mortal Orchestra followers have been waiting for.