Of the well-known musicians coming out of Iceland – Sigur Rós, Björk, and now Of Monsters and Men – the indie folk band Of Monsters and Men is really the only one you’ll hear on mainstream radio. Since their 2011 debut album My Head is An Animal received a North American re-release through Universal Music Group, the band has been an instant success. That album debuted at #6 on the Billboard 200, the best performance of any Icelandic band in the chart’s history, and the lead single “Little Talks” went 3x platinum, making its way into the Billboard Top 20 and topping the US Alternative Songs chart.
As a result, the band – with music closer to Mumford & Sons or a less daring Arcade Fire than either of its native contemporaries – has enjoyed a huge amount of success playing music festivals and selling out venues across the country. At Stage AE last Wednesday night, despite competing for a crowd against Glen Hansard at the Arts Festival across the river, Of Monsters and Men found themselves with a comfortable audience of a few thousand eager fans. Supporting band Half Moon Run, hailing from Montreal, was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, many of whom were familiar with the group’s harmony-strewn indie rock.
The electric energy of Half Moon Run, however, was not quite matched by Of Monsters and Men, who came on playing My Head opener “Dirty Paws” from behind a white curtain before it dropped at the chorus. Certainly, Of Monsters and Men put on a great show, their stage filled with giant paper balloons and brightly colored lights. Live, the full ensemble with horns, a prominent drummer, and lead by singer-guitarists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson translated their music perfectly to the stage, sounding beautiful and perfectly transcendent in the night air. They’re a wonderful campfire sing-a-long band for that reason.
I’d like to think, however, that there is more to Of Monsters and Men than comes across in their live show, lasting not much longer than their album, because it was a performance without spontaneity or much on-stage chemistry. I loved the vigor of the drummer, placed in the center of the stage, and the skill of the musicians definitely showed as well. But the movements of the singers and guitarists, stepping to and from the microphone in unison came across scripted, too neat and organized, much different from the chaotic yet confident crescendos of The National the night before, or even from the remarkably similar Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes the week previous. Call it the conforming influence of a label (see: Motown) or call it a lack of originality, but Of Monsters and Men didn’t quite stand up to their monster hype.