Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Unknown Mortal Orchestra rubbish all thoughts of them being merely a 'studio band'

28 September 2015, 11:21 | Written by Luke Cartledge

As Unknown Mortal Orchestra, much of Ruban Nielson’s appeal lies in the precise self-containment of his recorded output.

Like his fellow Antipodean Kevin Parker, Nielson has made three albums of guitar rock of a specific kind that can only exist in the studio, ornately decorated with clever production tricks that are nigh-on impossible to recreate live. With this is mind, it is a little difficult to know just what to expect from a live set by UMO.

What we get at Shepherds Bush Empire tonight (23rd September) is pure, unadulterated fun, from beginning to end. Nielsen and his band bound onstage amid a gloriously over-the-top flurry of cymbal rushes, booming synths and noodled guitars. They ride the giddy momentum this creates through most of the first half of their set, taking in euphoric singles like “Ur Life, One Night” and the pulsating, irresistible “Ffunny Ffriends”.

The pace is broken only by “So Good at Being in Trouble”, one of the set’s many highlights. Its tentative groove and earworm chorus are as danceable as they are affecting – a description that could be applied to much of tonight’s set.

Nielson has a remarkable way of pulling his listeners close with his sinuous grooves and fragile guitar work, before sucker-punching them with an enormous hook. Miraculously, the shamelessly silly, proggy re-arrangements of his songs to which tonight’s audience is treated do nothing to undermine their intrinsic vulnerability, and therein lies the set’s great power. Yes, the drummer is fantastic, and yes, the synths sound out-of-this-world, but the real key to the set’s coherence and emotional clout is Nielson’s knack for melding joyous pop with an inescapable sense of thinly-veiled fragility.

But forget all that – we haven’t mentioned the solos! Each musician is afforded several minutes (at fairly regular intervals) in which to indulge rock-star fantasies that appear to be clamouring to get to the surface of their playing throughout the set. Several songs end with such decadences, but the self-awareness each band member displays saves them from seeming too boastful. Happily, this self-awareness never spills over into cynicism or insincerity – UMO just know how to have a laugh.

Wisely, they never seem to attempt to exactingly reproduce the sound of their albums; instead, they offer alternatives and equivalents, all of which work perfectly in this context. For example, the crisp, super-present nature of Nielson’s recorded drums is compensated for by the muscularity and inventiveness of his live drummer, who is rewarded by way of an extra-long spot for Bonham-esque soloing.

The set’s closer is the lead single and title track of their new album, Multi-Love. It may be the most perfect realisation of Nielson’s sound UMO have yet released, and is the clear highlight of the evening. It is not so much a song that centres on a great pop chorus as three or four massive choruses pasted together, although it is far more cogent and effortless a composition that this may sound. Its quality makes the encore both unavoidable and impossible – at first, their re-entrance feels a little flat, until the chorus of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” utterly redeems the band of any shortcomings. After repeating said chorus a few extra times for good measure, Unknown Mortal Orchestra exit the stage as elated as they seemed upon their entrance. This feeling is shared unanimously by their audience.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next