“I’m too drunk to walk home, and yet you want things from me,” murmurs Ruban Nielson into his microphone. The performer stands, basking in fluorescent lights that not only change the color of the room, but the color of the entire universe around him. A phrase like this may come across as aggressive—even antagonistic—towards the audience, but when Nielson mutters shyly to a full house at Portland’s Roseland Theater, you can’t help but laugh along and smile just as widely as he does. This is just one of many precious moments that Unknown Mortal Orchestra will leave with the audiences of their live shows. The Portland-based band is centered around frontman Nielson, originally from New Zealand, and creates its own signature brand of soulful, lo-fi neo-psychedelic rock that attracts listeners of all kinds. Think of an American counterpart to bands like Tame Impala or King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, one that appreciates its choruses and that incorporates more aspects of popular American music past and present (soul, funk, disco, hip-hop, etc).
As Mia Barnes (12) puts it, a key quality of UMO’s musical style is that “the way they manipulate their instruments makes everything feel completely new and alien.” The musical Frankenstein that is the band’s musical style combines with Nielson’s lo-fi production style, one that has been infecting much of the rock underground over the course of the past decade. With every release being a bigger success than the last, UMO has been able to sound crisper, cleaner, and more evolved. However, they continue to retain the unique aesthetic that gives their futuristic sound a vintage edge. For some, it may seem impossible to translate something that sounds reliant on production techniques and a studio into a live setting. However, this unease didn’t put a damper on the excitement of concertgoers. “I can say safely that UMO is the concert I am most excited about seeing ever,” said Oliver McFadden (11). “I’m excited to see their unproduced take on a lot of the more heavily-produced aspects of their tracks.” It’s more than safe to say that the band delivered on this front.
Out of the gate, with the band’s understated entrance leading into the instant crowd pleaser “Ffunny Ffrends” from their 2010 eponymous debut record, Nielson’s vocal performance was shockingly consistent with the in-studio sound. Another key element of the band’s music on the whole is “how Ruban kept the soft and lilting quality of the vocal performance that you can hear on the studio tracks,” McFadden added. One glaring flaw of the live performance was the placement of Nielson’s vocals themselves in the mix. Like most live shows, especially of the rock variety, this performance was incredibly loud. Nielson’s “soft and lilting” vocals were either mixed in such a manner that they often couldn’t be completely heard over the instrumentation, or he simply wasn’t singing with enough volume. Aside from this and variations in melody thrown in for the sake of keeping the songs interesting, and the crowd on their toes, there was little change in vocal performance from the record to the stage. The drums, on the other hand (supplied by Nielson’s brother Kody), were drastically different than their studio counterpart. Nielson once claimed in an interview with VICE that he “[wants to take] the secret of [his] drum phasing to the grave,” as the drums in UMO’s music have a uniquely crunchy, phased out sound to them that can’t be replicated in a live setting. However, in the moment, the sound of live drums without any effects or production tricks actually added to the overall energy of the band’s songs; whether the audience was dancing, swaying, headbanging, or everything in between. And the set did in fact display the broad spectrum of energy and feeling in just one of the band’s records (specifically 2018’s Sex & Food). From gritty and heavy, yet surprisingly rhythmic tracks like “American Guilt” to spare, anxious acoustic transition songs such as “Chronos Feasts On His Children,” and even a modernization of disco fever in the form of “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays,” the exploration of genre and style was sufficient for the standard the group has created for itself. Many songs, regardless of style, were beefed up with lengthy instrumental breakdowns largely courtesy of the Nielsons in the form of face-melting guitar and wild drum solos, some of which were capable of “[changing] the entire vibe of [a] song and [making] it a whole new experience,” according to Barnes. Overall, the band executed on their songs old and new with an evident sense of care and musicianship, and did so while still being an engaging and eye-catching live act.
Along this vein, something anyone in attendance of a UMO show would notice is the fact that Nielson is quite the stuntman of a frontman. He came at the show with a sense of showmanship that is rarely encountered with a band of UMO’s size and in venues of such intimacy as the Roseland. As McFadden recalls it, “[Nielson] made numerous treks through the audience with a wireless guitar rig”—one that culminated in a trip through the theater’s balcony seating, “shredding” on the song “From The Sun” the entire way. And one that brought him back to the mainstage where he proceeded to do a 360 degree spin and drop to the floor in the splits. Much of this was done before the halfway point of the show, where Nielson confessed, “I’m getting drunk now.” This playful, energetic demeanor carried through Nielson’s entire performance—with the singer wearing an almost permanent grin—even amid songs with the kind of emotional weight that serves the band best. Nielson’s charming, affable nature inspired a similar warmth and comfort in the audience, like his goal was to make you feel at home. On top of this, the band’s set design transported everyone at the show to what in McFadden’s words “seemed like an Urban Outfitters version of the living room of the future.” It was completed with uniform white plastic chairs, a functioning record player and speakers, and other kitschy decor. In combination with the lights, which beamed throughout the entire room in such a manner that seemed to bring the performance space to a dimension completely apart from the outside world, these factors created a show that successfully embodied the band’s sound. A synthesis of the past and present, the chill and moody and the unabashedly excited, and one that sent all those involved home not just with a buzzing in their ears, but in their brains and bones as well. Something Nielson would be able to smile at, no doubt.