During a quick, pre show walk amongst tonight’s audience, one can see a genuinely varied herd of teens, twentysomethings, the middle-aged and, fairly rare for such a gig-going experience, families with young children. This broad demographic, along with the sold out status of this evening’s show, are both testament to the outreaching appeal that the Icelandic group have achieved since the success of debut album My Head Is An Animal – its epic, slightly otherworldly indie folk tunes containing enough commercial clout to secure top five chart positions in several countries including Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK.
Remaining to be seen whether it can follow in the platinum footsteps of its predecessor, the songs from this summer’s Beneath The Skin take vast predominance tonight and bring a darker edge to the band’s often euphoric folk-rock. Opener ‘Thousand Eyes’ is a rather one dimensional murmur of droning synths and one chord guitar attacks while ‘Empire’, with the piercing reverb of its guitar riffs and singalong chorus, is more characteristic of the band’s earlier work. However, ‘King and Lionheart’, inclusive of audience hand claps encouraged by animated drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, still serves as a welcome reminder of the happy, larger-than-life folk tunes of yore.
Alongside what is arguably the cornerstone of the band’s appeal – the effectively blending unisex harmonies of bandleaders Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson – the band now boasts a setup of nine musicians; an interchanging outfit consisting of three or more guitars, multiple keyboards, bass, trumpet, trombone, various percussion and harpsichord facilitate the moodier, emotionally ambivalent layers of the new songs. Additionally, a frenetic, multi-coloured light show periodically adds to the onstage sense of drama.
While with newer tracks like ‘Human’ and ‘Crystals’ the group retain their ear for a chorus of catchy simplicity – and it has to be said a continued fondness for whoa-oh-oh and la la la singalongs that is perhaps starting to feel like a convenient crutch on which to lean – the darker textures pervade. ‘I Of The Storm’ features the sparse builds of staccato drum rhythms and swelling keys while the effective touches of brass are sombre rather than shiny. Introduced by Hilmarsdóttir as the first song written for the new album, ‘Backyard’ is bleak with synthesised hums, a sluggish drum beat and atmospheric cymbal crashes.
It may be a matter of the latest tracks needing time to resonate within the affections of fans, but it’s undoubtable that the evening’s best moments occur with the delivery of older material. The intoxicating rapture of ‘Little Talks’, featuring its bonhomous sway of brass (including a riveting trumpet solo) and periodic shouts of “Hey”, is an absolutely unbounded joy. Feeding off audience response, it seems that the band too are enjoying more the delivery of established favourites; Hilmarsdóttir stands Christ-like at the stage’s edge and looks about to swan dive into the crowd during ‘Six Weeks’ while drummer Hilmarsson, the band’s official cheerleader it seems, twirls his drumsticks and incites a hands-above-the-head clap along.
‘Organs’ appears as the first track of a three song encore and is perhaps the highlight of the newer songs. Confirming her as the true star of tonight’s show, the slightly strange, cracked fragility of Hilmarsdóttir’s voice comes beautifully to the fore in a gentle acoustic ballad cataloguing an apparent struggle to leave behind lost love.
‘Organs’ was introduced with the words “now for a quiet song”, inciting a plea for old track ‘Love Love Love’ from the crowd. It is a moment that seems to encapsulate a fond relationship with the band’s older songs that has been apparently throughout. On tonight’s evidence Of Monsters and Men are a more sombre, complex and slightly less accessible beast.
Photographs by Stef Formica – see our gallery of the show.