Each year a few bands burst into alternative-rock stardom (think the Black Keys, Young the Giant and Phoenix in 2011, for example) and Imagine Dragons were one of those bands in 2012. There's a relatively routine pattern, where a band makes music for a while to little notice, a catchy single gets on the radio, they headline a tour around the world, and maybe even include a sold-out stop at the Pageant, and so on. Playing the Pageant, or other venues of its size, seems to be right around the tipping point where a band can either keep ruling the alt-rock world (as the Black Keys are doing), fade away for a while and build anticipation for a new record (as Phoenix are doing) or just kind of disappear all together (as Young the Giant did).
The catchy Imagine Dragons song you'd hear on the radio is "It's Time," a throttling arena rock jam full of claps and drum kicks. They have a few others that are gaining traction, notably a song called "Demons," about overcoming hardships in a relationship and another called "Radioactive," about realizing your place in the bigger world.
Nico Vega, a quartet from Los Angeles, lined the stage with gasoline barrels that vocalist Aja Volkman spent much of the set standing on -- barefoot I might add. The band came close to achieving the grungy, Kills-esque sound you could tell it wanted, but seemed to be missing the chemistry and fire that makes punk work. Atlas Genius, all the way from Australia, played a polished, 40-minute set. The sound was straightforward and clean and caught the attention of the crowd, especially during its final and best-known song, "Trojans."
Imagine Dragons, with only one full length album, a 40-minute-long tour de force called "Night Visions," were a bit limited on what they could play. They started with some of their lesser-known songs, which sounded pretty rough. A friend who calls Imagine Dragons one of his two favorite bands leaned over to me about 10 minutes into the set and whispered, "They sound a lot better on the album." I could not agree more. The balance seemed off, the drumming sounded clunky and the sound as a whole didn't recreate the vocal-driven, arena rock of "Night Visions."
Trees with spotlights hanging from them, almost like beehives, and two massive bass drums filled the stage. One of the drums, probably about five feet in diameter, stood just about as tall or taller (stand included) than each of the band members who played it.
For the first half of the set, my favorite moments came when the entire band wasn't involved. During a song called "Thirty Lives" vocalist Dan Reynolds, bathed in blues and whites from the beehive lights behind him, sang with just a guitar to accompany him. Later, Ben McKee channeled his inner Les Claypool for a bass solo. It wasn't until "Rocks," a bonus track from the album, that I really appreciated the band as a whole.
"Rocks," and another song played a bit later called "On Top of the World," have an edgier and jazzier sound than most of Imagine Dragons' music. Parts of "On Top of the World" sounded like they could easily fit into a Disney movie, maybe the Jungle Book, while others reminded me of the Bangles' "Walk Like An Egyptian." "Rocks" had a similar vibe, and sounded a lot like Tanlines or Yeasayer, sort of psychedelic with world influences and twangy vocals and guitar plucks.
"Radioactive," which fell about halfway through the 80-minute set, could have used some refinement. Until that point, the massive bass drums hadn't really been used, and the backing screen had been employed so sparingly that I didn't even realize it display projections. Within a matter of a few minutes though, every single trick Imagine Dragons had up their sleeves had been revealed. It was overwhelming.
"Demons" and "It's Time" were much better, crisp and clean, just like you'd want them to be. Experience seemed to be a factor for Imagine Dragons, with the more popular, more-played songs sounding infinitely better than the newer ones. The encore of "There's Nothing Left To Say" unfortunately fell back into the rougher sound of the first half of the set. I know it would have been cliché to play their biggest song last, but I kind of wish "It's Time" had been saved for the encore so the show could have ended on a high note.
It's hard to say if Imagine Dragons will become a big name in rock or start to fade away. The band had moments of greatness, but often it barely sounded fit for the position in which success had placed it. Imagine Dragons are riding a wave, and as much as I wish them success, you really can't predict where the world will take them.