While it’s easy to trace the roots of various types of music back throughout the decades, there is (arguably) hardly a genre so heavily reminiscent of its influences as neo-psychedelia. Simply consider the “neo” label, as if it could not work without a canvas of predecessors to project its ideas on.
However, much of neo-psychedelia doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts—and if it does, it often turns out to be among the most creative and inventive music there is these days.
This is certainly the case with Unknown Mortal Orchestra: the three-piece outfit from Portland, Ore., has removed the layers of vacuously piled effects often suffocating everything that is creative and original about a song in psychedelic music.
Since the group’s self-titled debut album, UMO’s music has always been very clear and self-conscious in sound, all while staying true to psychedelia’s spiritual roots. Most importantly, and probably more than any other psychedelic pop band, UMO has emphasized rhythm in its music and, consequently, drawn upon Marvin Gaye as much as upon Jimi Hendrix.
Just last month, the band released its third album, “Multi-Love,” which jumps 10 years to the future in terms of its influences, showcasing late 70s and early 80s disco in its sound.
But the question remained: with “Multi-Love,” would the band manage to reconcile this with the way it used to perform live—with concerts that were so clearly rampant rock and roll: sweaty, stormy, and far from spreading enough glamour to get them into a disco in 1979?
The long line waiting in front of the rather small Kantine am Berghain showed that UMO’s fans did not seem to have doubts about the band’s ability to transform its new sound into a show worth seeing.
Even so, as if to ease the crowd and themselves into it, Unknown Mortal Orchestra opened the show with “Like Acid Rain,” the song on “Multi-Love” that is most reminiscent of the group’s older works, all while still having a distinct ’80s feel to it.
“From The Sun,” the next song and single from UMO’s second album, was received enthusiastically by the audience and sounded exactly like on the record—except that it ended in a seemingly infinite psychedelic guitar solo. It was contrasted then by “Necessary Evil,” a new tune that sounded very much like funk in terms of rhythm. Even so, it was still distinctly Unknown Mortal Orchestra in terms of its harmonies.
In contrast to earlier tours, a keyboard player had been added to the band for the European tour, and his sounds, ranging from mid-80s synthesizers to classical piano, helped a great deal to capture the new album’s sound in a live setting.
Then “How Can You Luv Me,” from the debut album, somewhat paradoxically fulfilled what “Multi-Love” had promised, and eventually turned the venue into a dance floor, even all the way through the song’s excessive psychedelic solo interlude.
Yet while UMO alternated between its old and new sound in the first half of the concert, this began to change as it went on. “So Good At Being In Trouble,” one of the group’s most popular older songs, was transformed into a soul pop tune, ending with a piano solo that traveled from Stevie Wonder to the sound of the late Beatles.
Similarly, “Ffunny Ffriends”—the spherical weird pop anthem that kicked off the UMO hype—was given a jazz piano intro that should have negated the song’s atmosphere, but instead added to it.
The show ended with the night’s only encore, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” a single from “Multi-Love” that took Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s older, more guitar-centered approach and applied it to the new disco sound: the glimmering electro pop song was transformed into a rock song that featured the concert’s first and only distorted guitar riffs. Still, the disco ball that illuminated the dancing crowd beneath it did not feel out of place at all.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is now more eclectic than ever. The concert combined the raw, excessive energy of a rock show with the vibrant extravagance of a disco dance floor, and fused it into something new and exciting that was so much more than the sum of its parts.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra will return to Berlin on September 17 to play at Lido.