Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo by Sam Weil

Unknown Mortal Orchestra Pacifies A Packed Republic

828 S. Peters St. has come down with Oceanian psych rock fever this summer. In June, Australian superfreaks King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard sold out Republic, packing the 1,000-person room at least to capacity for a barn burner of a set. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Portlandians by way of New Zealand, played a slightly less crowded Republic Wednesday night, July 11. Their show, over half-an-hour shorter than King Gizzard’s and about a million times less sweaty, was somehow just as satisfying.

UMO frontman Ruban Nielson may be slightly rounder and less apparently extroverted than Stu MacKenzie, the rail-thin Aussie fireplug who fronts King Gizzard, but that didn’t stop him from coming offstage on multiple occasions, never missing a note of his winding, fingerpicked guitar mazes as he wandered through the crowd, twice scaling the stairs to the venue’s upper balcony to bless the awestruck crowd below with his melodic benedictions.

The band began their set with three tracks from their first two albums, starting out with an extended take on “From the Sun” before bringing it back to “Ffunny Friends,” the laidback jam that sparked their rocked-paced rise to success in 2010. They played the similarly lighthearted “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” before venturing into their new material, starting with “Ministry of Alienation,” a somewhat darker track off their most recent release, Sex and Food.

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UMO’s Jake Portrait. Photo by Sam Weil

UMO’s sound, defined largely by Nielson’s guitar and his characteristic, silky falsetto, but also by co-founder Jake Portrait’s bass grooves and backing vocals, has been relatively constant through eight years and four full-length albums. For Sex and Food, they added Nielson’s younger brother, Kody (drums), and Thomas Mabus (keyboard, rhythm guitar) to the roster. Young Nielson’s airtight pockets and Mabus’s tasteful, textured comping are strong additions but not gamechangers.

Thematically, though, UMO has switched it up. Much of the group’s early work existed in the hazy realm that psych rock often does, flirting with insight but never quite catching meaning. Multi-Love (2015), their third album, changed that, with Nielson’s songwriting focused on a year-long, polyamorous relationship he and his wife had with a young Japanese woman, ending when her visa expired and she was forced to leave the country. It’s a strange album concept, but it made for some of the band’s best material yet. UMO closed their regular set with that album’s title track. Watching Kody Nielson sing backup, I wondered how he felt about reprising his older brother’s sexual adventures on stage every night.

Nielson(s) and Co. returned to the stage undramatically after a brief interlude for a three-song encore, which included “Hunnybee,” the lead single and immediate standout hit from Sex and Food. Though the new album is notably darker than early UMO, “Hunnybee” is a blatant exception, as light as the band gets. They finished with “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” a beat-driven dance track off Multi-Love with a sneakily sad message about missing lover #3, even while your main squeeze/soulmate/life partner is sitting right next to you. As the final drumroll sounded, I was struck by the spectrum of emotion Unknown Mortal Orchestra is able to encapsulate while sticking so resolutely to such a distinctive sound. Unlike the high-octane thrill ride driven by their estranged, polymorphic brothers from down under in June, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set pacified the Republic crowd, wowing us with raw musicianship and keeping our shirts dry the entire time.