Imagine Dragons, Metric, and Halsey at First Niagara Center (2015)

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What we learned about Imagine Dragons during their western New York debut is that they’re still a band suffering from commitment issues.  Not to their fans, of course, but to anything resembling a distinct musical philosophy.

At no point throughout the Las Vegas quartet’s 105-minute set did I get the sense that they knew exactly what type of group they wanted to be, because every song etched an impression more asymmetrical than the last.

Consider the show as a microcosm of the central issue I have with their sophomore release, “Smoke and Mirrors,” because the band dabbled in a variety of styles without ever coming across as fully invested in any of them.

Think of them as Chandler Bing during the early days of “Friends,” only with songs instead of relationships.

“It’s Time” sparked the first sing-along of the evening with its daintily mandolin-plucked intro and age-old theme of defiance at all costs, an aspect appearing to resonate with both the baby boomers and the millennials all the same.  The title track from the aforementioned “Mirrors” record and “Polaroid” would soon follow with even more aspiring anthemic grandeur, but not even the muscular chops of guitarist Wayne “Wing” Sermon peeking through here and there was enough to prevent it all from feeling ordinary at best.

It would be easy to say that “Smoke and Mirrors” couldn’t be a more appropriate title for both them and their latest album.  It would be easy to dismiss their sound as further formulaic pandering to an audience already prone to lapping up the latest YA novel with Pavlovian regularity.  It would be easy to censure them for sloshing around in the same diluted arena-rock cesspool as Mumford and Sons, Bastille, and other modern Springsteen wannabes responsible for perpetuating the belief that simply including eclectic instruments on a song gives you instant credibility.

Making such claims would be effortless, to be sure, so I won’t go there.

I will, however, acknowledge my surprise when singer Dan Reynolds led the band through “I’m So Sorry” and “Friction,” two sizzling diamonds-in-the-rough that left me wondering why the rest of their material doesn’t sound like that.  The former especially had me holding out hope for the band’s future with its admirable attempt at grimy guitar-driven rock with funky overtones, because it’s the closest that Sermon came to being allowed to open up the heavens and deliver a sermon of his own on either the Fender Big Block 66 Jazzmaster or one of the custom-made BilT guitars he chose to wield for the majority of the set.

Reynolds is an affable leader with a knack for getting all the girls in attendance to scream on command, and, like any rising rock star, he didn’t let his opportunity in Buffalo go to waste.  When he wasn’t out mingling with fans in the lower level, he was strutting down the catwalk belting out hits like “Demons” and “I’ll Bet My Life” with an assuredness befitting someone whom has more than two albums under his belt.

The only negative I drew from his performance is the fact that he pawned the line “Unless you show me how” from “Demons” off on the audience, thus turning what should have been the song’s emotional climax into a moment devoid of intensity.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to finding most of what they brought to the First Niagara Center stage palatable enough; I just wish that the crowd hadn’t reacted as if they were experiencing The Beatles circa 1965.

Halsey opened the show with 30 minutes of sultry synth-pop from her forthcoming album, “Badlands,” (Aug. 28) which was made even more compelling by the presence of an actual live band sitting behind her.  Despite coming in as a relatively unknown commodity, her flawless singing, shadowy sound, and irresistible stage moves ensured that she left way ahead of Lorde in my book.

Canadian electro-rock favorites Metric were also on the bill, but I’ve been spearheading their bandwagon for so long that it feels redundant to note the fact that they essentially stole the show.  Emily Haines is a dynamite vocalist whose delicate methods add just the right phantasmagorical touch to tracks such as “Breathing Underwater” and “The Shade.”

 

 

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