We were transfixed when Unknown Mortal Orchestra took to the stage

Portland-Auckland group Unknown Mortal Orchestra were one of the last bands to rise to prominence in the now-antiquated blogosphere paradigm, pioneered by acts like Vampire Weekend. They were enigmatic outsiders with a genuinely original psych-funk hybrid.

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David Harris

The band’s eponymous debut wielded a measly production budget as an aesthetic veil but the robust pop songwriting of bandleader Ruban Neilson and his virtuosic guitar playing was too potent for it to last. The shimmering success of 2015’s Multi Love was an inevitable turn, setting a new entrance point for UMO without cultish or low-fi affectations and was a new creative peak. At the Forum on UMO’s Sex and Food tour, the crowd was reminded Neilson had kept a firm finger on the underground pulse when neoclassical ambient doom duo Divide and Dissolve were announced as support.

Neilson emerged scruffily bearded, with a dark robe over skin tight-leggings and dorky kicks, hauling a half drunk bottle of Tequila and his iconic red Fender Jaguar. The distinct brand of UMO psychedelia innate in Neilson’s guitar tone on ‘From the Sun’ opened the set to laidback singalong, his voice far clearer than the fuzzed up recording.  The phaser shred of the track’s guitar solo led him to walk through the entire sold-out Forum crowd without missing a single whoozy note, as a very flustered stagehand followed him with a portable fluorescent light.

The first chunk of the set was largely dedicated to running classics of UMO’s much loved first three records, carried with muted confidence. Neilson’s stage-attitude was initially mildly alienating – ‘Ffunny Ffriends’ was played at a languishing tempo while ‘Necessary Evil’ lacked its bright metallic horns – though his guitar playing was consistently transfixing. The future lounge-stylings of Sex and Food highlight ‘Ministry of Alienation’ heightened the chemical-pop contained within his playing and brought the set to speed. ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’ followed and was another early peak, its lovelorn croons appealing to the widest cross-section of the crowd.

The few bangers of UMO’s repertoire aren’t his most popular tracks, however they proved to be a dazzlingly effective mid-set diversion, punching through ‘Nerve Damage!’, ‘Major League Chemicals’ and ‘American Guilt’.

‘Nerve Damage!’ remained one of Neilson’s best experiments – a flanger-fed punk-shred and absurdist rant (“We got pistachio riflemen, We got a leopard skin motorcade, We gotta wipe the wipers”) while ‘American Guilt’s craggy crunch was a high-tempo political meditation.

UMO’s live band is a transient one, as Australia hasn’t seen the same lineup return twice, however 2018’s cast was undeniably one of the best. Reliably able to grasp tempo after Neilson fumbled his frenetic noodling on ‘Multi Love’ and party to his showmanship (including a bold tequila-fueled breakdance splitz) the group comfortably kept out of the limelight.

The encore somewhat signposted how Neilson writes now, and will likely continue to write; gone is low-fi blog-rock and in is lucid ruminations on 21st-century love and personal politics. Both Sex and Food tracks ‘Everybody Acts Crazy These Days’ and ‘Hunnybee’ built off the manifesto of closer and Multi Love favourite ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ – disco-inflected and defiantly forward-thinking psychedelia.

Highlight: ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ and ‘American Guilt’.

Lowlight: The moody renditions of early hits.

Crowd favourite: Neilson’s guitar solo through the entire Forum crowd.