Photograpy courtesy of Jono Jebus
Dark ominous-looking clouds loomed above the prestigious and spectacular Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. A torrential downpour seemed imminent but this did not dampen the spirit of the 5 500 fans who managed to purchase tickets to the debut performance of Of Monsters and Men in South Africa. Peals of laughter and excited chatter rang up down the long snaking queue of people who were waiting for the gates to open. It is rare to hear such excitement accompanying a long wait to enter a venue and it even remained after the brief delay to open the gates. A delay that was done so that people queuing at the top gate could enter without colliding with those making their way into the concert grounds from the main entrance.
Minor spats occurred between couples, and friends, as people made their way into the concert grounds and tried to decide where to sit. These spats were quickly resolved when somebody decided to take charge and forcibly command how the seating arrangement shall work. Sharp terse comments of “Put the blanket down”, “Nee fok, moenie daar sit nie”, and many others rose above the crowd as order was eventually restored by the self-appointed seat ushers. Once order had been restored, people settled into the usual routine that accompanies a South African picnic concert: drinking copious amounts of alcohol and stuffing one’s face until the main act took to the stage.
Gangs of Ballet promptly took to the stage and humbly understood that they were the band to which everyone shall eat and drink. There was no expectation on their part that the entire crowd was about to clamber to their feet and dance along to Gangs of Ballets’s spectacular fusion of ethereal alt-pop, anthemic alternative rock and aggressive alt-metal guitar riffs. It is an attitude that is a testament to their resilience in a harsh musical climate and their set only further proved why they have been so successful.
The band powered through some of their smash hits like the ethereal synth-pop anthem of “Always” and gave an interesting alt-rock meets alt-metal to the delightfully happy singalong of “Don’t Let Me Go”. It was their performance of “Hello Sweet World” that truly impressed me. It is such a slow, melancholic song when heard on Yes/No/Grey but the live performance saw the song straddling the gap between a melancholic musing and a soaring alternative rock anthem that matched the seething mass of ominous clouds above. The technical skill of the three piece came through on each song as intricate guitar riffs were matched to rhythmic percussion and layers of synthetic padding. The choice of Gangs of Ballet as the opening act had been criticised by many, but if one considers the role of an opening band to be warming up the crowd before the main act then Gangs of Ballet did just that as they loosened vocal chords and warmed swaying bodies
Much excitement descended upon the crowd as the tech team strode onto the stage and began setting up the array of instruments that would allow Of Monsters and Men to conduct an absolutely mesmerising performance. The set-up seemed over so quickly and the crowd immediately clambered to their feet when the lights went black and the smoke machine poured smoke onto the stage. Band members began to make their way through the mixture of artificial and natural mist to their respective instruments. Ominous tendrils of synth reached out to the crowd as if beckoning them to acknowledge the spectacle they were about to witness. Whispers of violin and muffled guitar riffs soon joined the synth tones as the band launched into the sombre opening of “Thousand Eyes” – a song that reached a dramtic crescendo as Nanna Hilmarsdóttir hammered away at a snare drum after drawing us in with her lilting vocals and enchanting hand movements. The song ended almost abruptly and as the cheers died out co-singer and guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson exclaimed “We are Of Monsters and Men. This is our first time in Cape Town and it is fucking cold”. An ironic statement considering the band’s Icelandic origins and the fact that Raggi sported a t-shirt.
I could go into much detail about each song that was performed by the band but I rather want to focus on the nature of their performance. What interested me was that, proportionally, the band played the same amount of old and new songs. Raggi had stated in our interview that they would most likely play their older songs and just a handful of new songs, but a close to two-hour set allowed the band to power through the majority of each album. Each song was unique. Each song was accompanied by Nanna’s ever-so enchanting stagecraft and Raggi’s swaggering charisma. Nanna bounced around the stage on each song and sought to draw the crowd in with intricate hand movements while Raggi often encouraged sing-alongs and conversed between songs with the crowd.
The band delivered the songs in such an entrancing yet ominous fashion as their indie-folk roots were tempered by the ferocity of alternative rock. “Wolves Without Teeth”, dedicated to a praying mantis that caused Raggi to recoil with diva-like shock and horror as he proclaimed to not be used to bugs, was delivered as purely alternative rock anthem as intricate licks of guitar propelled the synths and drum into a crashing crescendo upon each chorus. The lilting indie-folk anthem of “King and Lionheart” was delivered as exactly that straight after the haunting energetic performance of “Empire”. It was at this moment that the crowd was awoken from their gawping stupor as an awkward mish-mash of voices sought to drain out the already strained sound system.
Unbeknownst to us, the boiling mass of clouds above us were plotting to soak us with a torrential downpour but Mother Nature seemed to temper their intentions until the perfect moment: the main chorus of “Little Talks”. 5 500 people screamed and danced to the song as the lights burst forth towards the crowd and raindrops were illuminated. It made the song seem 100x better than it already did and served only to increase our spirits. The final four songs of the night were performed in the on-off downpour and as the band closed with the exquisite “Yellow Light” the rain seemed to wear off.
It was the perfect end to an absolutely perfect evening. My legs may have felt like a jelly and I may have sat in the parking lot for half an hour while waiting to leave, but it was all worth it to experience such an ominous yet whimsical evening of pure delight. I sat blaring Enter Shikari while feeling very chuffed with myself for being able to attend an indie-folk concert and drive off blasting metal.