Published May 02, 2018On record, Unknown Mortal Orchestra are known for their restrained take on psychedelia. Central songwriter Ruban Nielson's compositions are expertly crafted — packed with deceptively catchy riffs and hooks — but also intimately produced. The minimal, lo-fi presentation gives the band's flirtations with off-kilter pop, space rock and R&B a modest quality that was all but absent from their show at Montreal's Corona theatre. This Tuesday night, UMO were proper rock stars.
The stage setup alone was proof that subtlety was not in the cards. Cushy white faux-fur rugs adorned the platforms of the drums and keyboards, behind them kaleidoscopic lights gave way to plant-like silhouettes. A kitschy record player sat centre stage, offset by a collection of guitars as unconventionally shaped as Nielson's songs. His elaborate pedal board was gawked at with equal curiosity and envy by those in the front row.
UMO started their set at the beginning of their career, breaking out "Ffunny Ffriends," the song that first got the attention of music blogs after Nielson uploaded it to Bandcamp anonymously back in 2010. It's as revelatory as it was back then, and an obvious way to kick things into gear. Where Nielson's voice is masked behind the melody-mirroring guitar riff on the recording, it's powerful and precise in a live setting, proving that any obscuring of his voice in production is a stylistic choice rather than a crutch. One song in, Neilson was already embracing the '70s rock excess of the stage setup, stepping toward the crowd for a masterful solo. His guitar chops are technical enough to impress the most traditional of rock fans, but throughout the night, he proved that creativity both in tone and performance is his most valuable asset.
The band proceeded to run through a few fan favourites, pulling from 2013's II with "Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)" and "From the Sun," the latter of which became the first true sing-along of the night. However it was Multi-Love's "Necessary Evil" that really hammered home UMO's strengths, with all four musicians working in unison to create the central funk groove, before breaking into what landed as one of the most effective hooks of the night as well as a strobe-light-assisted guitar freakout that read as a true rock star moment.
With the crowd moving, UMO delivered a few cuts from their new album Sex & Food. The versatile record took the band from all-out rockers ("American Guilt") to psych-balladry ("The Internet Of Love (That Way)"), selling more casual fans on the new material with effective pageantry, as Nielson charged into the crowd and onto the balcony without missing a note. Later, he crowd-surfed, belting through a slower moment, where naturally, he did miss a few notes, and even stopped a moment to playfully scold fans: "Don't drop me!" He eventually made it through the mic squeaks and back to the stage where he regained control of the performance with an impressive and unexpected leap into the splits.
After a noise collage that could have easily served as a closer by a less capable band, "Multi-Love" earned one of the biggest crowd reactions of the night, the right choice to leave fans wanting more as the band exited and a "U-M-O" chant began.
"Thanks for the best Tuesday night ever," said Neilson after returning to the stage with a spare performance of "Chronos Feasts on His Children." Now that enough drinks had been consumed, the band closed not-so-coincidentally with three danceable tracks that escalated in the intensity of their disco beats. Following the infectious pop of new songs "Hunnybee" and "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays," the suite hit its peak with the chugging bass groove, shuffling drums and soaring falsetto of the tech-anxious Multi-Love single "Can't Keep Checking My Phone." At that point, there wasn't a phone in sight.