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Of Monsters and Men test old fans with new sound at Surly

Of Monsters and Men in 2016

Of Monsters and Men in 2016 Facebook: Shane Timm/Of Monsters and Men

From the very first song, Of Monsters and Men let listeners at their Saturday evening concert know they’re a new band with a new sound. However, the crowd at Surly Brewing Co.'s Festival Field in Minneapolis largely ignored the message.

After an energetic opening set by Baltimore electro-rockers Lower Dens, Of Monsters and Men slowed things down with undulating synth and light piano in “Under a Dome.” While it’s a departure for the Icelandic group known for acoustic-heavy folk rock with resounding group-sung choruses, electronic pop sounds pervade the band’s third album, Fever Dream, released in late July.

The lyrics of “Under a Dome” reinforced the band’s change in sound. “Fuck the way we were,” sang vocalist-guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson. “Wait—watch the color burst.”

The band proceeded directly into “Empire” from the 2015 release Beneath the Skin. This track had everyone dancing and singing along. Exemplifying the band’s classic sound, Þórhallsson strummed the acoustic guitar fiercely, singing along with vocalist-guitarist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. Brynjar Leifsson contributed electric guitar riffs, all backed by the driving rhythms of bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson.

The band announced the third song, “Ahay,” another slow track heavy with synth, samples, and repetitive drums beats, with a chorus that asks, “You think you know me / But do you really?” The sentiment is maybe too on the nose. There was no need to introduce the follow-ups “King and Lionheart” and “Mountain Sound” from their debut 2011 release My Head Is an Animal.

At points, it was an electrifying and magical concert with Of Monsters and Men's fairy tale-like lyrics and unique style that brings new life to folk rock. Once the sky cleared, an orange moon hung behind the stage as the band played hits like “Little Talks,” providing a tailor-made backdrop for the final summer concert in Surly’s stellar 2019 lineup.

However, with some exceptions, the rotation between new tracks and well-known hits throughout the show drew mixed reactions from the audience. Most seemed to prefer—or expect, at least—the latter. Maybe it’s just that these tracks are, well, new. After all, fans have had just a few weeks to digest the latest album, while they have spent years with the last two. But the response to the newer tracks was still underwhelming, with most audience members resorting to an awkward sway during the slow jams that resembled a junior prom slow dance.

The band members were not surprised by this reaction. In fact, they anticipated it.

“I know that some people won’t like [the new sound], because it’s different and people don’t like change,” Hilmarsdóttir recently told Billboard. She explained that Of Monsters and Men took a different approach when writing Fever Dream. Rather than constant collaboration, diligently penning lyrics, and hammering out chords on the instruments they’ve spent years practicing, Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson, the two main songwriters, decided to work separately. They recorded tracks on a computer using samples and drum machines, while learning how to use the audio production technology for the first time.

“We’re making the album we want to make, and that’s the most important thing,” Hilmarsdóttir added in the interview. “But I hope people can listen to it and not compare it to what OMAM is in their minds, because that’s not the rule we set up for ourselves.”

At the same time, it’s impossible not to compare the latest album with the previous two. Setting rules for songwriting seems silly, but both super-fans and casual listeners will bring a slew of expectations to the experiments. Which sometimes just don’t pan out. So blaming any lack of excitement on the idea that “people don’t like change” is dismissive.

When the new approach worked, it elicited a great response. Two tracks from Fever Dream in the second half of the set went over incredibly well. “Wild Roses” took the same electronic sounds and added an up-tempo dance beat, with a characteristically catchy hook in the chorus. “Oh roses, they don't mean a thing you don't understand,” sang Hilmarsdóttir. “But why don't we full on pretend?” The album’s single, “Alligator,” which enjoyed some time at No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Alternative Songs chart, also carried the crowd with its energy and pulsing rhythm.

What people don’t like is inconsistency and confusion. Just look at the mismatched attire on Saturday night, for example: a mix of shorts and sandals alongside winter coats and boots and so many wide-brimmed hats. No one even knows what goddamn season it is! So it’s unnecessary to add in moments of uncertainty during a show, such as Hilmarsdóttir’s pounding a floor tom so relentlessly during “Six Weeks” that it fell off the drum platform and needed to be rescued amid a blinding light show. Or how the show lasted just over an hour and ended before 9:30 p.m., wasting a half hour before the noise curfew. 

Of Monsters and Men proudly showcased their new songs at Surly, but only a few songs rose to the same level as the stalwart tracks they’ve toured with for years. And maybe that’s the real issue: The assumption that because something’s new, because it’s different, it must be good.

I can’t overstate how much I like to be surprised by musicians and, especially at live performances, delighted by something that’s impossible to get from just listening to the album. And in this regard, Of Monsters and Men have changed surprisingly little since forming in 2010. The band played their songs essentially note-for-note with the album versions and ended the show with “Yellow Light,” a so-called lullaby, just as they did when I saw them six years ago.

Despite the moments of magic, the crowd seemed to be clamoring for a second encore, uncertain whether the performance had really ended. It was a solid show, though it still left something to be desired. But what do we know? We’re just the audience.

Random notebook dump: Upon first listen, the opener, Lower Dens, sounds a little like a soundtrack from a just about any ’80s movie that’s set in the future (you know, the kind that begins, In the year 2005… or some shit). Sure, it’s synth-laden and has that signature snare drum along with guitar riffs heavy with reverb and delay. But there’s something really interesting and original added to the nostalgia, especially in the way lead singer Jana Hunter holds out words, breathing life into each one. “Buster Keaton” off Lower Dens’ 2019 album, The Competition, is a notable standout and a good place to dive into the group’s discography.

Overheard in the crowd: One man spreading both arms wide open to demonstrate how his friend could save his place in the crowd while he visited the port-a-potties between the opener and headliner: “When I’m gone, ‘Kris Lindahl’ my spot.” The trustworthy friend reassured: “Guaranteed offer.”

Set list:
Under a Dome
Empire
Ahay
King and Lionheart
Mountain Sound
Sleepwalker
Stuck in Gravity
Wild Roses
Wars
Crystals
Lakehouse
Little Talks
Six Weeks
Alligator

Encore
Waiting for the Snow
Dirty Paws
Yellow Light