Home Music Music Live Reviews

Unknown Mortal Orchestra Spellbind the Sydney Opera House

The genre-bending band’s first Australian show in six years was a magical and varied affair

Unknown Mortal Orchestra at Sydney Opera House

Maclay Heriot

It starts in your feet, the escalating sensation. It moves to your hands, and soon you’re wriggling from side to side like a snake charmer. Eventually your whole body catches up. A quick glance to the left and right reveals that everyone else is acting exactly the same way.

There can be only one explanation: Unknown Mortal Orchestra have spellbound the Sydney Opera House crowd.

Last week, the acclaimed New Zealand psychedelic rock band played their first Australian show in nearly six years, a far-too-lengthy wait for their keen local fans.

Inside the iconic venue the varied crowd was immediately noticeable, from hipsters with handlebar moustaches to parents carrying children wearing Doc Martens. Having formed at the tail end of the 2000s, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, led by the relentlessly curious Ruban Nielson, have attracted both widespread critical favour and a loyal fanbase.

The evening began in total darkness before, bathed in red light, keyboardist Christian Li emerged. Ominously tapping on the keys, the lonesome Li was then joined by Nielson, drummer (and brother) Kody Nielson, and Jacob Portrait on the bass guitar.

They opened with “The Garden”, from their latest album, V, which sounded like a warm hug from a comforting parent. Nielson’s honey-dipped vocals were the perfect accompaniment to the mellow bassline towards the end of the track.

The band then launched into a tour of their deep catalogue, jumping into “From the Sun” from their second release, II, complete with a wicked drum fill. The next track, the fan favourite “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”, also went down a treat.

Credit: Maclay Heriot

An introverted stage character, Nielson kept his crowd interactions to a minimum between songs, but everyone was here for the music anyway.

Continuing the run of II tracks, they then moved into “The Opposite of Afternoon”, which was followed by a shredding guitar solo. Dipped in blue lighting, the band then offered “Thought Ballune” from their eponymous 2011 album.

In an unexpectedly lovely moment, Nielson then left the stage, heading into the stalls to find a spot in the seats where he continued to jam from; a sea of bodies embraced him as he continued to rock out.

By the time Unknown Mortal Orchestra left the stage, it felt like only a few minutes had gone by. “That was so quick,” I whispered to a friend, only to glance at my phone and realise it had actually been an hour and twenty minutes. Again: we had been spellbound.

A five-track encore ensued, where the band’s classic cut, “Hunnybee” was played. “You can stand up”, Nielson said as he invited the crowd to their feet for the last few numbers. The crowd willingly obliged, fully surrendering to the groove and soaking up every last drop of energy, sound, and colour. No flairs, no fireworks, no flamboyance: just great music. Let’s hope it’s not another six years before Unknown Mortal Orchestra return to Sydney.