Ears Always Open.
It’s a mantra I’ve kinda tried to stick to when it comes to music, as frankly band recommendations and new things to listen to come to me from all angles sometimes, and also from the most unexpected corners.
As in this case. Having returned to Iceland ten years after I first visited, it was on a fascinating tour out around the Reykjanes peninsula – somewhere near Grindavík – when our tour guide put on a “local band” who had at that time hit the Billboard top ten in the US. The song was Dirty Paws, and I was instantly captivated at this sweet, folksy band who sounded unmistakably Icelandic.
Getting hold of the album at the time proved another matter. While I was picking up old Mínus albums in a record store on Laugavegur (probably Smekkleysa?), I neglected to buy the Of Monsters and Men album, which meant that I ended up having to wait another five months until it was released in the UK. Yeah, nice work record labels – many others would have just given up and downloaded it by that point. My patience was rewarded, though, by a charming album that built on that first song and made the whole thing a really quite glorious listen (and one that made it into my top albums of 2012).
As it happened, trying to see Of Monsters and Men proved to be just as difficult, as I’m by far the only one to have succumbed to their charms. The ticket I finally obtained, months in advance, was up in the gods, on the third night of a sold-out run of three nights at The Empire. That is six thousand people they played to over those nights – some feat for a band only in existence for a couple of years, and who had barely been heard outside of their native Iceland a year ago.
And the adulation shown to the band as the lights went down and the band took to the stage was pretty extraordinary, and this was something that continued through the evening, with most of the crowd knowing every word, every “hey”, every handclap…and it has to be said that the band looked kinda stunned by the reception, as if they still can’t quite believe the levels they have reached in such a short time.
Of Monsters and Men setlist
Slow and Steady
Skeletons [Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover]
Love Love Love
King and Lionheart
One of the (many) joys of live shows is hearing songs in a new light, songs that maybe you didn’t think were all that much on record, that are suddenly, wonderfully changed into something utterly transcendent. And this happened a few times during the evening, the beautiful, delicate Slow and Steady morphed into a steelier ballad with the assistance of the whole crowd singing along, while the closing Six Weeks – a sprawling song on record already, was extended into a jaw-dropping, skyscraping track that confirms once and for all that this band are far closer in scope to Arcade Fire than anyone else.
That wasn’t all. Both Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (the female singer) and Ragnar Þórhallsson (the male singer) each got their own songs onstage – most are duets, but one or two are pretty much showcases for one or the other. Ragnar’s is the melancholy Your Bones, which is one of the songs I’m not /that/ familiar with on the album, but found myself singing along with the whole thing when it was aired.
Talking of bones, in the heart of the set a cover was rolled out, that really took me by surprise – Skeletons by Yeah Yeah Yeahs– but as it unfolded, it also made a lot of sense. The original is relatively minimalist, and so OMAM turning it into one of their own actually worked well.
Aside from the discoveries, though, the stuff I’m already really familar with, and had taken to heart a long time ago, were all quite glorious. King and Lionheart, recently released as a single with a stunning video, was a huge singalong, but that was put in the shade by the fabulous a capella intro to Mountain Sound that unleashed a joyous celebration involving the entire crowd for three minutes, and was one of those “moments” that I live to attend gigs for.
And frankly, it summed up the whole show for me. A life-affirming band who deal in sadness and celebration, sometimes (somehow!) at the same time, and have an uncanny knack of writing otherworldly pop songs and appear to now be on the brink of stardom. I’ll be cheering them along as they go.