MusicfestNW 2011, Thursday: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

photo by William Anthony

Unknown Mortal Orchestra was formed just in the last couple years by ex-Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson after they disbanded. Apparently, he had planned to just work a day job but after making some psychedelic basement demos and relocating to Portland from his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, he couldn’t avoid his passion for musicianship. Their debut album, recently released by Fat Possum, is an adventurous sonic journey, full of long, complex guitar riffs and joyous youthful vocals, often sung in Nielson’s distorted falsetto — a sound that UMO’s website claims is influenced by “60’s psychedelia and krautrock minimalism.” This is a very strong showing for a debut album and it will be a delight to watch this new project perform.

Live at the Doug Fir Lounge during KEXP’s broadcast at MusicfestNW, Unknown Mortal Orchestra managed to sound even better than they do on their album, a feat that is frequently difficult for bands who perform this type of complex semi-improvisatory psychedelic rock. At times, it was hard to tell if Nielson was performing his audacious guitar solos as you hear on the album or improvising — honestly, it didn’t matter because it sounded incredible. His style is unique — appearance-wise, he holds his guitar as high as I’ve ever seen anyone, the top of the body almost to his neckline. He told me after the show that he hardly ever uses a pick, opting for a half finger-pick/half hand-strumming style that gives his distorted guitar a more warm sound that bodes especially well with the feedback that he was continuously searching for, at times knocking against his guitar, at times flipping his on-board switch to get resonance. During these solos, which were the certain highlights of the set, drummer Julien Ehrich and bassist Jake Portrait kept steady the driving melody, allowing Nielson to venture into the world of classic psych guitar rock. Ehrich, a mere teenager (according to UMO’s website), remained expressionless the whole set. At times, he was looking off into the distance, at times backstage — it could have been indifference or disregard but he was so bang-on that it had to be utter concentration. If you can catch this band performing tonight with Little Dragon, you will not be disappointed — I sure was when their mini-set ended.

photos by Brittney Bollay:

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