How can you not love this band? Haunting, otherworldly, ethereal, like a lucid dream, or awakening from one; an all-night journey to the high golden home of the Elfin king, where magic and mystery are well alive and flourishing. Mythic. And so, the April 14 show at the newly remodeled Grand Sierra Resort Theatre was simply phenomenal. Amazing. Superlative. Of Monsters and Men presenting a nuanced, energetic, yet intimate show for the enthusiastic crowd that filled the hall. How we ever managed to get this burgeoning international sensation to “The Biggest Little City in the World,” we may never know – but grateful we shall be, for a long, long time to come!
Smoky clouds of fog billowed into a mysterious play of shadow and light, creating a magical effect long before the band members strolled on stage (right on time) at 9 p.m. By then, the full house began a slow, steady roar of excitement and anticipation to greet them. The stage revealed three raised platforms circled around four microphones at front of stage where the lead musicians settled in. With elaborate drum sets, several floor tom-tom drums, keyboards, accordion, horns, and more, beneath a large, abstract black and white backdrop, the nine-member band (in their entirely black attire) launched into their first number. Beginning lyrically enough, an otherworldly atmosphere was quickly invoked as the song transformed into a powerful shamanic dirge, with lead singer-guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir soloing on the tom-toms in the middle of the stage. Slowly, steadily, she grew more and more intense, prancing around the drum while flinging directed, impeccably timed hits to its beating heart, and thereby nailing the show out of the park on the first hit.
Hailing from Iceland and emerging on the scene in 2010, Of Monsters and Men are led by singer/guitarist Hilmarsdóttir and co-singer/guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, along with guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, and bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson. In addition to this energetic, driving ensemble, four more session musicians join them on tour, adding an even richer, symphonic element to the already lush sound this band creates. Ragnhildur Gunnarsdóttir accompanies on trumpet, accordion, keyboards, piano, and tom-toms, as well as backing vocals; Steingrimur Karl Teague covers keyboards, piano, accordion and backing vocals; Bjarni Þór Jensson features on guitar, percussion, and keyboards, and Sigrún Kristbjörg Jónsdóttir plays trombone, percussion, and accordion. The two women, Sigrún and Ragnhildur, intoned lilting, embellishments and long, drawn out notes from their horns, that sailed above the rest of the complex musical bed, essential melody lines and accents on many of the songs.
With complex, fairy tale-like stories embroidered from eons of their native Norse (and cross-cultural) folklore, the band weaves a truly mythic hero’s journey in almost every one of its lyrically complex songs. This must be part of the its mass appeal, and what might explain the incredibly diverse crowd in attendance, on a weeknight no less, seated in the GSR theatre. A mix of parents, young children, young teens, high school and college kids, 30-somethings and oldsters, including over 50 and beyond, filled the hall: hip and square, young and old, everyone singing along to the impassioned songs this talented band enacts.
When singer “Raggi” announced the third song of the set, “King and Lionheart,” the crowd roared, glad the show would be a mix of songs from the new album, “Beneath the Skin,” and two previous, internationally acclaimed releases: “Into the Woods,” and “My Head Is An Animal.” With exacting, rhythmic strumming and his elfin-like alto voice, Raggi had us from the first note. A great light show accompanied Nanna’s elegantly choreographed flights of fancy around the stage, moving from tom-toms (where she continued to invoke the powerful effects of droning rhythms), to touching fingertips with front row patrons, and picking up her guitar on cue, never missing a beat.
She’s really quite badass, that one: a true performer, and a delight to watch.
A mere 27-year-old pixie (in May), she evokes an ardent, intense performativity, unleashing her melodic narratives in a lush, haunting voice. Alternately breathless, then soprano, and heavily accented in her purring English, all add to the mystical element of the songs. Entranced, the crowd hung on her every note. Embellishing with her hands, imploring with wide sweeps of her arms in front of the microphone and over her head, she sang with intense concentration and precise attention to cadence, tone, pitch, and necessary theatrics and mime. At times, as if possessed, a purposeful, frenetic energy commanded Nanna’s performance to an almost fevered pitch. Completely mesmerizing, like an actress commanding her stage, she was entirely engrossed in her own delivery, singing her tales with vibrancy, a winnowed grace, and powerful aplomb.
Introducing a song Nanna said they “don’t perform live very often,” the band launched into “Silhouettes,” a song written for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” movie. Another songs from the new album, “Wolves Without Teeth, ” flowed into more crowd favorites: “Love, Love, Love,” “Mountain Sound,” and “Little Talks” had the crowd singing along to every note. Whether jamming on electric guitar or singing solo, Nanna gave our Reno crowd her all. Raggi and band mates all played their hearts out, empathic and synchronized, playing off one another in an amazingly poetic exchange. The back up (touring) musicians added essential ambiance and detail to the performance, with soaring trumpet and trombone notes, impassioned keyboard chords, atonal shifts, and the more unusual sounds of the accordion, xylophone, and ever-present beat of the tom-toms.
After the last song of a very full and satisfying set, the musicians left the stage, feedback still emanating eerily from their guitars: a perfect postscript, somehow, a sonic memory of the mythic journey we’d just undertaken. But that wasn’t all: the band returned for not one, not even two, but a three-song encore. “We’re making you a quiet song,” Nanna proclaimed, as the group launched into the medley, which segued into “Dirty Paws” (clearly the biggest crowd favorite of a favorites-laced set), and ended with “Yellow Light.” During the last part of the encore, Nanna put down her guitar to circle the tom-toms one final time, playing one stick in frenzied tandem with another drummer, like two “wyrd wymyn” calling in the fates. Again, the band walked off a darkened stage, leaving us with the lingering tones of a strangely melodic feedback like a message from a netherworld, to carry forward into the starry mountain night.
Muno sets the tone
Openers Muna, from L.A., set the stage for the Icelandic powerhouses to come. Three gutsy young women front this “dark-pop” girl band: lead singer Katie Gavin’s deep, resonant voice, rich with pathos, invoked an ’80s punk rock sound (reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders), accentuated by her high-energy pogo-jumping around the stage in between her compelling vocals. Heavy on the bass, and featuring Josette Maskin on lead guitar, and Naomi McPherson on rhythm guitar, synths and production, Muna exuded an unexpected lyricism combined with raw, intelligent melodies and moody, driving rhythms. Keep an eye out for more from this band.