In a way, Unknown Mortal Orchestra did to psych-rock what James Blake did to R&B. Both artists punctured holes in well-trodden paths to clear space for new hybrids. But while the New Zealand trio’s studio strengths might hinge on their ability to bury inarguable hooks inside understated fuzz, in the flesh the band saddles up to make war on the air.
I first crossed paths with UMO when they opened for Liars on last year’s WIXIW tour. Then, the band delivered a polite, droney set that was as easy to get lost inside as it was to ignore. Taking the stage at the sold-out Lincoln Hall as the headliners this time, Unknown Mortal Orchestra cut loose from their studio mold for an outpouring of raw, hot psych-rock that spilled out the holes deliberately left in their records.
First, two opening sets cited two different scenes of the ’70s. Newcomers Wampire enjoyed a solid, if nonchalant performance, showing up in sunglasses, certainly high. On tour with UMO from California, Foxygen played a set whose ferocity couldn’t be guessed at from their newly beloved LP We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. Arriving as a fivesome, the band delivered a performance that brimmed with danger and joy. Singer Sam France veered between psychotic desire and disdain for the crowd that surrounded him, growling primally and crooning smoothly in turn. It was difficult to tell if the tension that centered on him was real or fabricated; at one point, he cut off a steady jam session with a glib “fuck it”, but Foxygen transitioned so smoothly into the next song it could have easily been all a part of the show. If it was an act, it worked; his volatile presence lent the songs a power beyond their twee studio incarnations.
The headliners, too, burst past their canned work. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s charms, both on tape and off, largely stem from frontman Ruban Nielson’s ability to craft riffs from pieces he found in the sand. As a guitarist, he fills a niche he dug himself both in sound and physical style. His easy fingerpicking and the strap slung over just one arm suggest he’s been an autodidact at this game from day one; his musicianship is unorthodox and that’s precisely what makes it so compelling. Vocally, Nielson continues to wander intricate staircases, snapping complex verses back to earth with choruses so simple that the whole crowd was singing them on the way out of the venue. Lyrics hide beneath all the noise until they crystallize in painfully relatable clips: “I’m so lonely / But I can never quite reach the phone.” This is UMO’s strength: it’s maddeningly opaque until it becomes just translucent enough to keep us peering in.
As a frontman, Nielson points his energy to the floor. Few bands can claim that their drummer has the most stage presence, but UMO wields that inverted pyramid largely to their benefit. Riley Geare (who first appeared onstage to cover Bowie with Wampire) sits so comfortably in his own skin that it’s hard at times to stay trained on the guys at the lip of the stage. He’s not showing off; the energy’s not forced. He’s just a powerhouse, deftly maneuvering between beats sourced from all over the popular lexicon. With bassist Jake Portrait, Unknown Mortal Orchestra boasts a rhythm section so locked in it could be transplanted seamlessly into a live hip-hop gig—or a post-hardcore show.
Like a good conversation between new friends, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set took some time to find its groove. Nielson had to claw through some awful crust on his effects during opener “No Need For A Leader”, but soon settled into a more volatile take on the dry, wispy tone that fills UMO’s records. A few choice songs erupted into full-blown improv jams, most notably “How Can You Luv Me”, which shed its shy quirk entirely for a stomped-out feedback uproar by the finish.
But it wasn’t until the encore that the crowd even realized what we were, in essence, looking at. Taking on the late Jay Reatard’s 2006 cut “My Shadow”, Unknown Mortal Orchestra transformed into what they had resembled on the surface all along: a balls-out punk band. With Nielson’s withdrawn presence, it was easy to forget what the power trio usually performs. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at his shoes or simply had his eyes closed through the whole set, but either way I doubt he looked at the audience once. It didn’t matter by the end; “My Shadow” gave the band the excuse to turn themselves inside-out, to unwrap their skins for a bloody climax. After the tumult, “FFunny FFriends”—the band’s runaway hit, and probably the reason they ever made it to Chicago to play for us at all—stomped in with a full dose of adrenaline in its veins.
It was a welcome release. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s records do what they’re supposed to, and largely do it well. But UMO in real space fight throughout their set to escape from the cages they’ve built for themselves.
Photos by Jeremy D. Larson.
No Need For A Leader
Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)
How Can You Luv Me
Strangers Are Strange
Jello and Juggernauts
From the Sun
So Good at Being in Trouble
My Shadow (Jay Reatard cover)