A perfectly adequate little lipstick-n-laser glam rock throwback, UNI, just stepped up their game with a potent new track and video for "Debris" that looks and sounds for all the world as if it beamed in from the same psychedelic sci-fi universe as Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals, Hawkwind's Space Ritual, and of course Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. The latter touchstone is especially evident in the video, inspired by and patterned after Bowie's performance in The Man Who Fell To Earth.
UNI started off as a side-project for magazine model Charlotte Kemp Muhl who, when not strutting down fashion runways, co-creates paisley pop Ghost Of a Saber Tooth Tiger tunes with Beatlespawn Sean Lennon. Muhl has also worked with San Diego band the Sinclairs, aka the Lucy Ring, who she recorded in upstate New York at Yoko Ono’s private studio.
The UNI videos and concert clips uploaded between 2017 and last year feature Muhl and her initial bandmates - chamber-pop-cyberpunk guitarist David Strange and Dionysian prettyboy vocalist Nico Fuzz - developing an ambitious, mildly prog, vaguely symphonic, and completely cinematic sound that oozed into your eardrums and cerebellum like the lingering tendrils of a bong hit.
UNI back in the day with Nico Fuzz (center)
Fuzz in particular seemed well suited for the colorful '70s look and vibe, resembling a young Johnny Depp but with the chops and pop-performance sensibilities of Marc Bolan. Like the T-Rex frontman, Fuzz also managed, with a kind of wink and a nod, to acknowledge the dress-up and play aspect of the act with a level of friendly humor and sincerity that deflected the laughter, or even ridicule, that glitter rock tends to invite nowadays. After all, it's been quite a few years since the aforementioned Marilyn Manson completely failed to bring sci-fi glam back to the top of the charts with Mechanical Albums (which, despite being his most musically adventurous and arguably best album, was hated by fans unwilling to make the leap from monochrome to color). And comically gigantic platform shoes have been making people LOL since Herman Munster, regardless of how seriously Fuzz's bandmates seemed to be taking everything.
However, apparently Fuzz wasn't the right fit for Charlotte Kemp Muhl, whose stewardship of the group includes directing their videos. There's actually a performance clip on YouTube where Muhl seems to openly mock Fuzz partway through a multi-song set, because Fuzz kept using the phrase "special" when introducing the songs.
"They're not special, stop saying everything's special," Muhl interrupts. You can almost see and feel how crestfallen Fuzz is, and for just a brief moment the rock star mask falls away and there's this poor guy, looking genuinely chagrined and unsure what to do next, as she just keeps going at him with admonitions like "It's just a fuckin' song." The cameras and mics are all right there, capturing every wince, every sharp look, every near-stutter of Fuzz's attempt to salvage the song's intro, even as Muhl seems to be silently daring Fuzz to say "special" just...one...more...time....
Well, Fuzz ended up going back to his own band, and was replaced in UNI by a dangerously androgynous model friend of Muhl's named Jack James. Sure, it's already annoying that Muhl is a fashion model who has said she finances music projects with model money (having Sean Lennon as your longtime partner doesn't hurt either). And the tendency to eschew most of her clothing for videos and performances, despite being someone who obviously must have many closets full of fashion, doesn't inspire confidence, as wearing very skimpy crop-tops in very cold rooms is usually an attention-getting ploy best left to those with no other talents to display.
So it wasn't too encouraging to hear that she booted a perfectly adequate and suitable singer for a strange looking and nearly alarmingly tall man who more resembles a cult character actor from horror movies than a rock star. But Jack James made an immediate mark with videos such as "American Fag," where he not only displayed impressive vocal chops but also oozed a charisma and star power that comes as a genuine surprise.
Nico Fuzz may have been everything you'd want in a rock star. But Jack James is anything other than what you'd expect.
In the video for "Debris," he literally looks as if he's stitched together from slightly mismatched parts, even before he goes through the transformative "mutation" depicted in the sci-fi storyline. Sonically, his breathless passages contrast sharply with the moments when his voice rings loud, high and clear as a tuning fork, apparently with a minimum of electronic trickery, at least judging from the handful of live performance clips of the new James-fronted UNI that can be found on YouTube.
The textured layers upon layers of oozing buff and dreamy sheen slapped all over "Debris" go beyond Alan Parsons level overproduction into a full-on lucid dream state - think Lana Del Rey's production team binging on LSD-laced Xanax. It's a big attention-getting change for what was previously a mildly engaging little band. I already liked UNI a lot and had ever since first spotting their original videos with Nico Fuzz, many of which feature cartoons, crazy FX, and even, in the case of "Destroyer," some really well-done clay animation.
"Debris" feels like a major next step for the group, which now finds itself moving toward the head of a class of psychedelic sci-fi glam revivalists that are making real waves in the music biz: the Claypool Lennon Delirium (featuring Muhl's boyfriend), King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Dhani Harrison (more Beatle DNA), Dr. Dog, Animal Collective, and Of Montreal, to name just a few.
The video for "Debris" came out a few weeks ago, and I find I've already watched it several times. I look forward to seeing what they do next. That alone makes UNI stand out from the pack like few other bands in recent memory. If a sci-fi glam rock revival really is in the works, UNI is in the perfect position to become both the genre's best-seller and standard bearer.