Gig Review: Of Monsters And Men – Washington DC – 2015-05-05

The Icelandic Indie folk/acoustic darlings drop a batch of new songs from the upcoming “Beneath The Skin” along with crowd favorites from “My Head Is An Animal” on the faithful in Washington DC.

Certain things in music are generally true, including the assertion that any English-speaking Icelandic band is going to be quirky, individualistic and worth a listen.

That truism has been valid at least as far back as the Sugarcubes/Bjork, continuing through bands like Seabear and Quarashi and of course Sigur Ros. Of Monsters And Men carried through on that proud tradition on 2015-05-05 in their soldout show in Washington DC at Echostage, where they previewed several tracks from their upcoming (June 2015) new album “Beneath The Skin” along with popular favorites.

Of Monsters And Men’s debut album “My Head Is An Animal” was an unlikely hit in 2012 in American alternative circles with several infectious hit singles and clever animated videos including “Little Talks”, “Dirty Paws”, “King and Lionheart” and “Mountain Sound”. OMAM hit US shores at the crest of the wave of acoustic/folk bands that followed in the wake of the Mumford & Sons breakthrough, and were often lumped in with both European and US bands that on the surface carry a similar sensibility such as the Noah & The Whale, The Head And The Heart, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, etc.

I thought that “My Head Is An Animal” stood out from the rest of the pack as one of the best albums of 2012, combining some of the best of the Arcade Fire, The Head And The Heart and The Wind And the Wave. The lyrics were interestingly impenetrable, and I really liked the timbre of singer and guitarist/drummer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir’s voice. Hilmarsdottir’s voice has just a trace of Bjork in her slightly-accented English, and her voice melds nicely with other singer/guitarist Ragnar Porhallsson.

I’m still not sure that I understand all of the metaphors in their lyrics (at least I’m assuming they’re metaphors), but the big-hearted singalong style in their hypermelodic folkish choruses make you feel that their songs have always existed and the melodies are very pleasant and accessible, albeit with a slightly dark twinge. They have released lyric videos for several songs off of MHIAA but which don’t help me a bit to understand the songs, and I’m OK with that.

OMAM have kept a low profile since the extended touring that accompanied My Head Is An Animal but have just started touring in North America in support of the upcoming “Beneath The Skin”, and they played several brand new songs at Echostage, including the two strong new songs that have already been released, “Crystals” and “I Of The Storm”, leading off the show with two brand new songs.

“I Of The Storm” might be the more representative example of the new songs, which in general seemed not as immediately accessible as the singles from MHIAA but are probably growers on extended listens. The choruses seemed smaller and overall their sound has grown and evolved, broadening and deepening the heavily percussive and rhythmic elements with heavy bass drums and martial snares. Along with the percussive elements, they kept enough fragile keyboards along with some trancelike atmospherics from the hollow-body guitars and even an occasional trombone to broaden the sound and keep it from getting too heavy. As a comparison point, the song off of the first album that ties closest to the new songs might be “Your Bones”.

None of the songs had the mass-vocal bounce of “Mountain Sound” or “Little Talks” but they probably realize that they had mined that vein pretty fully on the debut album and their earlier “Into The Woods” EP from 2011. There was also the natural tendency of a young band to be a bit more tentative on brand new songs as opposed to the songs on the debut album that they’ve been playing in concert since 2011 (if you include the Into The Woods).

There is a fine line between fully realizing a signature sound, and reaching a musical dead-end. The evolution of the new OMAM sound is not nearly as pronounced as on the new Mumford & Sons album but it is a noticeable difference from MHIAA and bodes well for the band’s future as the winds of the music industry change. They appear to have avoided painting themselves into the same corner that some of their “sibling” bands appear to have done.

In concert, while OMAM play as an ensemble, Hilmarsdottir really draws your eyes as the center of attention, occasionally playing a bass drum on the side and being the most animated of the performers. She is the motor that drives the band live and gives it a distinctive character.

As with any concert where the band emphasizes brand-new songs, the audience saved the majority of their enthusiasm for their favorites from the album they knew, and this show was no exception.“Slow And Steady” was the first song from MHIAA and got a big crowd reaction, and the show reached an early peak with an enthusiastic rendition of “Mountain Sound”.

Predictably though it was “Dirty Paws” and especially “Little Talks” during the encore that blew the roof off the Echostage as the pent-up enthusiasm of the crowd was released. It did seem to me that the band seemed slightly uncomfortable playing their intimate songs to a 2,000+ person ecstatic, bouncing crowd and I do think that their future is going to be playing more acoustic and intimate shows; in either case though I think that this is a band that’s in it for the long haul.

Overall, a very nice performance by an up and coming young band. I’m looking forward to hearing the new album and hearing how it compared to what I heard last night. Definitely worth seeing if they come to your town.

“Beneath the Skin” is released world-wide on 2015-06-09 while “Crystals” and “I Of The Storm” are already available on iTunes and on streaming services like Spotify.

To get a general feel for their sound in concert, here’s their set from Bonaroo 2013:

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