There’s a constant in the story of Of Monsters and Men that statisticians can have fun pondering over. In 2013 they played their second show in Manchester, upgrading from Academy 3 where they’d held their first, to Academy 1 and selling out all 2,600 tickets. Two years later they did it again. Tonight it was the same story, another sell-out show, despite having virtually disappeared for several years. In fact, stood in exactly the same spot for the third time, for me it was Groundhog Day.
But they’ve never scaled up again, for example to the Apollo, which would give them another 900 capacity places, let alone entered the Arena division, which is where many critics were sure they would have ended up by now.
To my non-statistical mind, the reason might be that while they have secured a passionately dedicated following, it arose out their debut album My Head is an Animal and that despite two changes of musical direction since, with the second one, Beneath the Skin and again recently with Fever Dream they haven’t really secured a new audience. And that can be very important when you leave a gap of four years between albums.
The evidence I present arises from the widely varying crowd response to the new material, which is considerably more sophisticated than the tub-thumping anthems of MHIAA, compared to those earlier tracks and which demands considerable attention.
Of those new Fever Dream songs only the show opener, ‘Alligator’, ‘Sleepwalker’ and ‘Wild Roses’ can compare with MHIAA songs in this live setting, and accordingly drew at least a reaction from the crowd, and the opening song of the encore, ‘Waiting for the snow’, a lovely ballad duet-ed between an almost invisible Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir and Raggi Þórhallsson elicited hardly any at all, many in the audience deciding it was time to check their messages.
Contrast that with the frantic crowd reaction to the opening notes of ‘King and Lionheart’, ‘Mountain Sound’ and ‘Dirty Paws’ and even more so to the traditional closing trilogy of ‘Lakehouse’, ‘Little Talks’ and ‘Six Weeks’. Nanna and Raggi didn’t need to sing a word from start to finish and often didn’t; the crowd did it for them.
I sensed that the band may have realised this as the tour has progressed as they changed the set list to play for the first time ‘Human’ from ‘Beneath the Skin’, a crowd favourite. Personally, I’m disappointed they didn’t do the same with ‘Organs’, for me the highlight of that album and a vehicle for Nanna to show what she can really do vocally.
The way the band presents itself on stage has changed. They’ve gotten older, and there is less larking about than there used to be, even from guitarist BrynJar Leiffson, who was always prone to throwing in an extra note or two where it wasn’t needed or wanted. But the downside is that interaction with the crowd has gone with it. Banter with the audience was at a premium and even Nanna’s joke, which she’s told twice before at this venue, about a couple of burly bouncers singing along to ‘Love, Love, Love’ from MHIAA at their first-ever Manchester show, went missing.
There was something else missing as well. It was gnawing away at me right from the start and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been afflicted. I’m talking about the absence of Ragnhildur Gunnarsdóttir. While never a member of the band, only a touring addition, Ragnhildur’s trumpet solo in ‘Little Talks’ was always hugely anticipated and usually drew the loudest cheer of the night, along with her drum bashing competition with Nanna in ‘Six Weeks’ and her endearing personality. Instead we got a lame accordion solo in ‘Little Talks’ while the ending to ‘Six Weeks’, one of the most dramatic in the business, fizzled out amongst missed cues and even, horror of horrors, a couple of bum notes. Couldn’t they have found another trumpet/accordion player-drummer in Iceland? In possibly the most musical nation on Earth there must be one in every street.
Little Talks as it used to be:
Let’s have this right. This wasn’t a bad concert at all; it was thoroughly enjoyable and the audience went home happy, but it wasn’t their best one here. That was the first one I saw, six years ago.
The organisation of the show has barely changed over the years. That makes me wonder if it’s time for them to start mixing things up a bit. I’m reminded of Arcade Fire who astonished everyone in their audience at the Arena once by ending their show not with one of their bangers as usual but with the ballad ‘The Suburbs’ from the album of that name, as individual band members slowly left the stage. They took an enormous risk but it paid off handsomely. How I would have loved to see OMAM do the same here tonight, concluding perhaps with ‘Waiting for the Snow’ or ‘Organs’ rather than what has become a limp and predictable ‘Yellow Light’. Who Dares Wins.
Another factor weighing on the appreciation of the show was the choice of support act. The first time at Academy 1 it was the unambiguously Icelandic Mugison, who could be one of the huldufólk, and in 2015 it was a previously unheard-of Highasakite, who almost stole the show. Tonight it took Brighton’s Black Honey some to time to get going and just as they did their time, regrettably, was up.