In 2012, as “Little Talks” was overtaking U.S. airwaves. Of Monsters and Men went from winning their native country Iceland’s battle-of-the-bands to being dubbed the next Arcade Fire. Their debut, My Head is an Animal, was a cult singularity in the indie-folk scene; a scene that saw a dubious flare-up of artists who sought to immortalize themselves within the 15-minutes of fame the genre saw in the mainstreams of the Billboard 200.
But that was three years ago and at one time, Of Monsters and Men might’ve been the poster-child for indie-folk–banjos, soft spoken lyrics of pastoral imagery, and all–but this isn’t your father’s folk band anymore.
In no other moment was that made any clearer than during the band’s nearly two-hour debut at the Greek Theatre Wednesday night. Led by lead singers/guitarists Nanna Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, Of Monsters and Men set the amphitheater afire with their bold orchestral anthems and fiery baroque pop bombast. Opening with the murky percussion gallops of “Crystals” and anthemic choruses in “King and Lionheart,” the nine bodies onstage burned just as brightly as the neon lights that exploded around them.
As one of the faces of the group, Nanna was a portrait of poised jubilance throughout the night; like a quiet storm broiling in the distance, her hands were a blur of movement against her guitar strings, while the lush echoes of her voice shined like silver. Then there were the moments when Ragnar’s vocals would dance alongside Nanna’s, such as in “Empire” and “Black Water,” the hoarse clarity of his vocals mingling with hers–like cold ocean waves crashing against a rocky beach–the clashing of their roaring croons left you riddled with goosebumps.
But one of the night’s standout moments occurred during the percussion led crescendo of “Six Weeks.” As Nanna and Arnar Hilmarsson (drums) joined two of the band’s touring members in hammering away to the song’s thunderous melody, while Ragnar and guitarist Brynjar Leifsson (an Icelandic flag draped around his shoulders) peddled out wave after wave of its electric riffs. Performances of “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” were similarly stellar–a phenomenal solo by trumpeter Ragnhildur Gunnarsdóttir sent the crowd into a frenzy–but what was truly bewildering was the way these folk songs were transformed and sounded like arena-ready anthems.
As hundreds of fans joined in on singing along to the wild finale of “Lakehouse,” screaming every “la la la” to the rhythm of the song’s bellowing brass and percussion, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and begin to feel that familiar fire in my belly (not alike the one I get when I’m singing along to the “oh oh oh’s” in “Wake Up”). If Arcade Fire was indie-rock royalty, Of Monsters and Men are well on their way to being heirs to the throne.
The band returned to the stage for a three song encore, which included the Hunger Games track “Silhouettes” and “We Sink,” but began with the first live performance of “Organs” in the band’s history. “We’ve never played this song live, but it’s an important one to our story,” Nanna murmured to the crowd before strumming the strings on her guitar to the song’s visceral lyrics.
Standing onstage at the Greek last Wednesday night, as unapologetically passionate entertainers, Nanna and company appeared more fearlessly confident in their avant-garde sound than ever. Weaving their ardent fables in one hand and our bleeding hearts in the other, Of Monsters and Men left fans nothing short of mystified.
Los Angeles sweetheart and singer/songwriter Elle King opened the night with a short but high-octane set–shouldering electric guitar and banjo alike to play through her bluesy discography, which included the infectious, radio hit “Ex’s & Oh’s.”
Words & Photography: Steven Ward
Of Monsters and Men
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