Live Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra @ Sydney Opera House

31 January 2024 | 2:55 pm | Shaun Colnan

Unknown Mortal Orchestra provided a smorgasbord at their Sydney Opera House concert, sampling their five dynamic and genre-defying albums.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Source: Supplied)

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It’s so surprising that it’s been six years since Unknown Mortal Orchestra has graced Australian shores. How time flies. 

Still, Darwin-born, New Zealand-raised artist Ruban Nielson and his Portland, Oregon-based psych-rock outfit have lost little of their shimmer, bringing nuance and catchy indie tunes back down under.

Tonight was a smorgasbord as the band sampled their five dynamic and genre-defying albums, moving through soaring indie rock, blissed-out pop, soul, funk, and freaky late-night R&B. 

The band’s latest release, V, was the perfect excuse to initiate their Sydney Opera House debut at the Concert Hall for just tonight. The sunny, warm glow hanging over the entire album meshed perfectly with the sunset in the West, farewelling revellers as they streamed into the Concert Hall.

The opening track, The Garden, taken from the aforementioned 2023 release, expressed a sense of comfort in a chaotic world, signalled by the repeated lyric introduction: “Hold on tight, ‘cause it’s violent in the garden”. It was clear from the outset just how tight the band was.

Of course, that’s to be expected, but this was enhanced even more by the acoustic environs. Nielson’s mellifluous vocals meshed perfectly with the mellow bassline, while the guitar solo towards the end of the track set the audience off. 

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Then, the band seamlessly rewound the clock an entire decade, launching into the opening track from II, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2023. The jangle of the fingerpicking intro instantaneously alerted the crowd that this was From The Sun; the audience duly obliged with cheers. This was before the crash-bang-wallop of the drum fill, which dragged the song into its very singable hook.

Next, Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark) seemed to echo the theme Nielson deals with most. You can see his introverted nature through his limited verbal crowd interaction between songs. The band launches into one song after another, so they remain aloof, spectral. Yet, the titular lyric – “I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does, I’d fall to the bottom.” – feels relatable to any quiet dreamers out there.

Continuing the run of II songs, UMO moved into Opposite Of Afternoon, showcasing the characteristic dexterity of Nielson’s guitar style and the soaring fast-paced vocal line, which details a wonderful mishmash of night-time images as if he were taking you on a tour of the opposite of afternoon. Then came the shredding guitar solo, which was to become a signature of the event.

In a rare moment of audience interaction, Nielson announced, “This is an old one”. The lights burned an aquiline blue while the band treated us to Thought Ballune from their breakthrough eponymous album from 2011. Still, the spacy theme, the lexical turns, the repeated hooks ensured and most-importantly the predominance of guitar set to deceptively simple drums ensured this fit with even the band’s newest music.

In an even rarer moment of audience interaction, Nielson set sail from the stage, touring down through the front rows and finding a spot to sit while he played along to the band jamming onstage. This triggered strobing lights and a sea of phones. 

Then the bassline and brassy keys of a primordial version of Necessary Evil from the popular 2015 album Multi-Love rose to our ears before the infectious guitar line came in, matching the hook everyone knows: “We’re in love, but I don’t get what you see in me/ Lovin’ me could be your fatal flaw/ Just hanging in and trying to be your necessary evil.” The band also sandwiched a truncated version of the slower jam, Monki from II, into this to change the pace and herald their tightness, smoothly switching gears.

Then, they returned to the new album with In The Rear View, a deceptive bright bop belying the sadness and longing of the lyric: “You'll never miss it, forget I existed…Do you ever look back at me in the rearview?” 

Pink lights streamed through the Concert Hall as UMO returned to their first album with Ministry Of Alienation, another melancholic track expressing frustration with the Orwellian elements of modern America with punchy lines like “Not heaven just California” and “Like the rapture in reverse.” This was before the band fell into a heavy, chaotic, keys-led denouement.

Waves Of Confidence led to an introduction of the band members, which led to Nadja before one of the standout hits of their earlier years: So Good At Being In Trouble. Difference and nuance were added to the classic as the band moved through an atmospheric breakdown quite different from the upbeat pop sensibilities of the track. Then, they built to a jarring crescendo. 

The catchy new track, Layla - with a rhythm fitting for (and inspired) island living - is a call to escape: “Let’s get out of this broken place”. This transitions into an ambient sojourn by keyboardist Christian Li, who had the air of a mad scientist playing almost warped ice cream truck music under a red light. This morphed suddenly into Multi-Love as Nielson returned to the stage to sing the undulating and infectious opening, detailing a chaotic love story.

Then came a five-track encore where people finally rose from their seats and jigged a little to tracks like Hunnybee and closing track, I Can’t Keep Checking My Phone.