UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA @ Badlands Bar gets 8/10

Unknown Mortal Orchestra @ Badlands
w/ Feels
Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Unknown Mortal Orchestra is one of the most intriguing acts in music today. Their studio recordings have a lo-fi charm, as frontman Ruban Nielson spins a unique web of influences from 60s psychedelia, soul and mod through to 80s and 90s R&B. Live though, UMO is a different beast. They bring the grit, and Nielson brings the guitar histrionics – the man is a guitar colossus, one that inspires the same type of “oh shit” reactions as when Prince ripped out that guitar solo during While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Needless to say, this sold out gig did not disappoint.


There was calm before the storm. Opening act Feels are making quite a name for themselves in the competitive Australian electronic scene and their set made it easy to see why. Coming out in matching blue jumpsuits, the duo drew the slowly-growing audience in with their patented brand of kooky, utterly charming electronica. Over lush but spare synth backing, percussionists Elise Reitze and Rosie Taylor laid down a wave of entrancing percussive textures. One rhythm was played on a drum pad, the other on an electronic xylophone. This afforded a wide range of percussive sounds, ranging from muffled snares through to the sound effects of water dripping. The stage, decked out in foliage, grew to resemble an underwater cave as Feels invited you to play in their own little Octopus’s Garden.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

The place filled out quick and Unknown Mortal Orchestra were next. Nielson opened things up with a bang as he launched into an exploratory guitar solo. The exploration was literal as well as musical – Nielson came off stage and weaved his way through the packed crowd for a lap while in the throes of a brain-melting guitar solo. It was an auspicious start and the energy level didn’t let up from there.

Last time I saw UMO it was at the Astor, where they held sway with a surprisingly tight-edged sound and enough guitar pyrotechnics to tip things in a borderline jazz fusion direction. This time, the intimate surrounds combined with the more jagged edge to their latest album Sex and Food meant a change in sound. They seemed to play it looser, drums and bass caterwauling over Nielson’s distorted, wah-wah drenched guitar. Yet despite replicating the crusty lo-fi psych sound of his latest recording live, Nielson has lost none of his chops. The music was raucous but tight – the band could stop and start on a dime, and Nielson’s guitar excursions, while reigned in, still never failed to amaze.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

UMO quickly followed up proceedings with older classics Ffunny Ffriends and Sleep and Swim (Like a Shark), revelling in riffs and 60s-inspired keyboard changes. From there, it was banger after banger, with 2015 classic Multi-Love and the aforementioned Sex and Food getting equal attention. The highlights were numerous. Necessary Evil was suitably spooky and boasted a razor-sharp guitar solo. Ministry of Alienation ebbed and flowed, hypnotic. So Good At Being In Trouble saw the guitars take a backseat in favour of pure melody for a classic singalong. Then back to a six-string assault again with the Hendrix-inspired Major League Chemicals transitioning seamlessly into American Guilt. Both tracks were already turned up to 11 on the album, so you can only imagine how this came off live.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

The last portion of the set was pure pop. Not in Love We’re Just High saw Nielson strut again through the crowd, this time in full crooner mode. A cheeky heel-spin finished proceedings, Nielson clearly having fun. The best was saved for last with Multi-Love closing the main set and the monster trio of Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays,  Hunnybee and Can’t Keep Checking my Phone ensuring the encore left off on a high note. The songs spoke for themselves as the crowd followed every word.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra remains a must-see live act, combining razor-sharp musicianship with a playful performance we don’t see enough of in psychedelic music. My one complaint was the set length – at 70 minutes with minimal breaks or stage banter, it cut things a little fine. The setlist was tightly packed, allowing less room than I would’ve liked for Nielson to indulge his more free-form inclinations. However, if anything it only served to highlight just how many great songs this band has. Can’t wait to see them again.


Photos by Q