For more than a decade, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have been an understated go-to for soulful psych-rock; melodic enough to catch a groove, but with just enough kicks, snares and good ol’ fashion guitar riffs to keep your senses wide awake. At East London’s 3,000-capacity Troxy, the Auckland outfit dialled-up the rock factor, putting on a show that was far more enrapturing than I’d anticipated. And it was all the better for it.
The minimal set design, with nothing other than that oh-so-crucial three letter acronym ‘UMO’ flashing in blue and white behind Ruban Nielson and co., might have made you think it would have been a more pared-back set. But this proved a false flag. Instead, the sonic heft behind the likes ‘Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)’, taken from the band’s sophomore album II, and ‘Layla’, from their latest record (also simply titled by a roman numeral, V), made for a ramped-up occasion.
Kicking-off with V opener ‘The Garden’ might have acted as a kind of lyrical warning, with its cries of “Hold on tight / ‘Cause it gets violent after dark / In the garden.” This wasn’t the mosh pit-inducing kind of gig, mind, but with the vast majority of the crowd opting to be down in the pit rather than the venue’s plush seats, you could hardly move.
That said, there were some special moments where you needn’t have worried about having space to jig, as their clever segue between tracks animated your inner soul. You could be in the crowd, but equally in your own world, as they mesmerically merged debut album track ‘Thought Ballune’ into ‘Little Blu House’ from the same record.
There was another terrific segue, which likewise operated as a calling to the UMO old-timers, as perhaps their most recognisable tune, the pensive ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’, sauntered into the rugged angst of ‘Waves of Confidence’.
Nielson’s simple service announcement for the first tune – “This next one’s called ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’” – only made you notice how little he’d been talking to the crowd, the band letting the headrush of guitar speak for themselves.
UMO’s nod to their middle years output, meanwhile, via the almost disco-inflect ‘Multi-Love’ – the opening title track to their 2015 album – had the audience swaying in a dance-ready unison. This merely tantalised us, however, when the band appeared to act out the old adage always leave them wanting more, as they walked off one-by-one at the song’s conclusion.
Thankfully, they decided to dispel this notion, returning for an encore that began with upbeat number ‘Meshuggah’. After fellow V track ‘That Life’ reeled off its riffs, the instantly recognisable opening strings of ‘Hunnybee’ was met with an almighty collective cheer. “It’s just such a tune,” one moustachioed man muttered next to me. You’re not wrong, buddy, you’re not wrong.
With ‘Hunnybee’ played in a manner more akin to how it’s heard on the record – be it played from your headphones, or a speaker whilst sipping drinks on a hot summer’s day – it gave breathing room to take in the prior moments of energy. This was a psych-rock treat with added verve.