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Newcastle is treated to a night of genre-fusing, kaleidoscopic lo-fi.
Published: 22/06/2023  Photo: Carla Bradley
 Author: Eleanor Osada

UMO, shorthand for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, are straight out of Auckland, NZ. Yet on a Monday night, they find themselves on the other side of the world — playing on a sunny evening at The Boiler Shop in Newcastle, northern England.

Their recently released fifth album, appropriately titled ‘V’, is a tasty, nuanced, lo-fi dream. Amidst the cocktail of indie and psychedelic funk, there’s a breath of the tropic: while muzzy and darkened, it also carries a great lightness.

This duality is mirrored onstage, as the four-piece step before a wall of acronymic Hollywood bulbs, they perform in almost total silhouette. UMO are enigmatic in this way - faceless music makers.

Opening the set with an extended intro into their newest track 1, ‘The Garden’, their live sound bursts and glows, right off the bat.

They’re a studio accurate band, paralleling songs on the record honestly - but with a little pinch of spice. This extra oomph comes in the form of fuzzy solos and delay-heavy outros, really solidifying their psych-rock - bordering on prog - leanings.

UMO’s catalogue translates well in a live environment, with a healthy mix of old and new interspersed through the setlist. Listening to them whittle through a host of songs, there’s a similar cadence to their alt contemporaries — janky and wobbly in all the right places, yet still remarkably original.

Ruben Nielson, frontman of the band, quickly shows himself up as a very skilled (yet understated) guitarist. He tussles tricky sounding riffs out of his instrument, seemingly with ease. These are arguably UMO’s trademark: juicy, earwormy guitar melodies - not neglecting their patented nebulous tone. At times he works into a shred, like during oldie, ‘Waves of Confidence’, and their sonic build tears through the barrier of my protective earbuds, it’s so ferocious.

Nielson is joined by his brother Kody on drums, Christian Li on keys, and Jacob Portrait on bass - together making UMO’s live effort. Portrait’s duties earn further appreciation in this space, audibly clearer and more complicated, he’s a power bassist.

Yet there’s no mistaking UMO’s groove strength, with a 70s-era organ emulation during ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’, and a Stevie Wonder type lilt running throughout a ‘V’ highlight, ‘Meshuggah’. The set seems to be played at 1.5x speed, as if they’re hurriedly trying to make their way through what is now a chunky discography - but it adds to the buoyancy of the night.

Their shadowy front carries through to their stage presence, Ruben being especially reserved for a frontman - bopping his head as he plays, delivering the very sound that people have gathered for. Any more would be overkill, shutting down the hypnotic, almost peaceful air to the show.

Breaks between songs are punctuated with “thank you very much”es, a “cheers” to Newcastle with a raise of a glass, and a brief band introduction. A man of few words, sure, but their colour shines through the music.

UMO’s experimentalism is respected in this crowd, and it’s interesting seeing what they respond to. The age old British tradition of turning any sort of motif into a football chant, though tonight a little more low-key and polite, materialises during one of their most popular tunes, ‘Necessary Evil’ — the audience da na na’ing the riff in an instant.

‘Layla’ makes for a smooth set closer, and so the band silently take off. There’s chants for an inevitable encore against a wall of deliberate feedback, and a a sudden gratitude for their three letter moniker and its rhythmic ease to shout.

They, officially, close up their show with four consecutive bangers. ‘Hunnybee’ and ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ being two — also UMO’s most played, the former song having a whopping hundred million plus streams on Spotify.

It’s fair to say that for a band over a decade deep, Unknown Mortal Orchestra are underpraised, unrecognised for the great magnitude of their footprint on the scene: they’re the dark horses of genre-fusing, kaleidoscopic lo-fi. The people that know, know - and experiencing tonight proves that the knowledge is a gift.