Photo c/o Instagram user bee_dee_em
When Unknown Mortal Orchestra co-headlined Phono del Sol (along with SF’s The Fresh & Onlys) in 2012, their set was pre-II, and thus pre-best of UMO. The band released II on Jagjaguwar early this year — their sophomore LP to 2011’s self-titled — so I quickly spun the hazy, psychedelic album into constant rotation and critics generally fawned over the thing. The Portland-based (though 1/3 New Zealand-born) trio finds a delicate balance between lo-fi minimalism and swirly, disoriented pop songs heavy on themes of isolation with II, which they translate gracefully into a live show. The ability for ominous lighting and a rather prolific fog machine at The Fillmore last night does in their favor — in comparison to the more stripped-down atmosphere of Phono del Sol last year — as they played a haunting, 90-minute set before an intimate crowd.
The Fillmore’s audience was actually pretty sparse at the start of UMO’s performance — though the floor filled out as the band churned out more echoey, elongated versions of tracks from both II and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. For the majority, they took their recorded material and ran with it, turning 4-minute pop songs into dizzy epics threatening the 10-minute mark. Typically this habit reads as indulgent, and if it were anyone else I’d be skeptical, but UMO’s fuzzy, kaleidoscopic vibe and swirling technical intricacy lent well to these exploratory tangents. Going on this theme, a black caped Ruban Nielsen (guitarist/vocalist and New Zealander) was a little out of it — he seemed to get lost in his nimble guitar wizardry and invoked the encore with a whisper of “I’m drunk…” — but his disoriented swagger somehow worked in his favor. His distorted vocals and heart-thumping baselines courtesy of Jake Portrait induced a tunnel visioned “strange old state of mind” (as “So Good at Being in Trouble” proclaims), and sounded appropriately Twilight Zone-y on performance highlights “No Need for a Leader,” 2010’s Bandcamp debut “Ffunny Ffrends,” and “Monki.” “Jello and Juggernauts” and “Thought Ballune” from their self-titled, as well as “Secret Xtians” off II impressed as well.
A Nielsen-solo, acoustic version of II‘s first single “Swim & Sleep (Like a Shark)” started out the encore, and two more tracks (“Ffunny Ffrends,” “Boy Witch”) brought the set to a close. For a three-piece, UMO’s sound is deceptively labyrinthine — yet maintains the calm, quivering minimalism they’re known for. This band’s unique and immersive presence is addictive — I’ve vowed to be there each time UMO graces the Bay from here on out, because I’m a sucker for subtly baroque psychedelia such as theirs. I recommend you profess the same.
Hear Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “So Good at Being in Trouble,” a gem from II below.