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Unknown Mortal Orchestra keep getting better and better

25 May 2015, 18:37 | Written by Russell Warfield

This year’s Multi Love is already a frontrunner for album of the year, and has taken Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound in an unexpected, but natural new direction. Building on their love of sixties psych, these songs add vintage synth to widen their homage to the period, while never failing to blend their work with the fresh and contemporary.

The evolution in sound is addressed tonight (21st May) at the Islington Assembly Hall in London with a fourth member, but given a slightly different approach. The warm, electronic synth sounds are actually pared back a little, and cleaner piano runs are put into their place. The effect is strong and beautiful. Tonight, Ruban’s love of jazz, subliminal on record, is allowed its full thrift, with luscious rolls, syncopation, and periods of extended meandering allowing the band to indulge these impulses with aplomb.

I didn’t expect “Stage or Screen” to turn into a music hall ditty, with the crowd waving their arms from side to side, “Que Sera Sera” style, Ruban without guitar, stalking the stage like a straight up popstar. And I don’t think anybody saw tonight’s hammy piano coda to “Ffunny Ffriends” coming, back in 2011. Both are welcome developments, and feel oddly organic.

As a guitarist, Ruban remains one of the finest you’ll find in alternative pop music today, and is continuing to improve. Almost every song tonight explodes into epic wig outs with blistering and inventive guitar runs. He plays with dynamic, rhythm and melody, making the songs even more thrilling than they are on record, and often twice as long. He is also adorable. He bounces, and mic-grabs, and wiggles, and even throws in a couple of Whigfield fist rolls. In all his excitement, it’s hard to believe he keeps his hands on the guitar enough to play the stuff he’s playing, but it doesn’t half make him a likeable figure, rather than an aloof virtuoso.

It’s never show-off, nor shock and awe tactics. Ruban’s guitar playing is always primarily playful. He’s in love with sound, and guitar music’s potential to pleasantly surprise an audience, and that comes through on every song tonight.

Just three albums in and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have a set which most career bands would kill for, with a rock-solid dynamic between the band members that allows their improv-friendly songs to open up, slow down and shape shift exactly as it feels like they’re meant to. And at the core – in spite of all their evolution in sound and performance – is a collection of stunning pop songs, stuffed with hooks, sung with increasing confidence. An outstanding show.

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