Standing on-stage Thursday night at the Hollywood Palladium, Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons looked out at a capacity crowd and said with astonishment, “I don’t even know how this many people know about us.”
His bandmates had a hunch, however. That was the moment they powered up “Radioactive,” the moody electro-grunge single that tops three of Billboard’s rock charts and sits at No. 9 on the Hot 100, nestled comfortably between tunes by Rihanna and Bruno Mars. It’s this Las Vegas group’s second big radio smash following “It’s Time,” which set a record last year as the longest-running top 10 hit on the alternative chart.
Both tunes have helped drive Imagine Dragons’ 2012 debut, “Night Visions,” to sales just shy of 1 million copies -- an impressive figure for any act in the era of YouTube and Spotify, but especially for one that aligns itself with the otherwise diminished state of mainstream rock.
Imagine Dragons’ old-fashioned success is the result of a somewhat new-fashioned sound.
Produced by Alex Da Kid (best known for his work on rap cuts by Eminem and Dr. Dre), “It’s Time” and “Radioactive” layer fuzzy guitars and Reynolds’ histrionic vocals over squelching synths and bulky, hip-hop-inspired beats. They’re part of a growing number of bionic rock songs – along with Alex Clare’s “Too Close” and Awolnation's "Sail" – that feel designed to woo listeners who have grown up with little attachment to rock 'n' roll.
The band didn’t try to play down those embellishments Thursday. At the Palladium, where the band was playing the second of two sold-out shows, Imagine Dragons opened its 90-minute set with a kind of futuristic fanfare and appeared to rely at least in part on prerecorded instrumental tracks throughout the show. Carefully timed lighting patterns bathed the stage, which had been decorated with cutout trees in the manner of a high school musical.
Yet Imagine Dragons seemed also to be asserting its rock-band bona fides, working to distinguish its performance from that of, say, a DJ or a pop act.
In “Cha-Ching (Till We Grow Older)” Reynolds rather grandly whacked away at one of several large marching drums near the front of the stage while guitarist Wayne Sermon took a lengthy solo in “Round and Round” that suggested the Edge’s playing in early U2.
After "Amsterdam," Reynolds mentioned the four years of hard labor that Imagine Dragons had put into its journey to the Palladium – another way to remind fans that the band wasn’t created in a recording studio overnight.
But the grind hasn’t helped Imagine Dragons develop the sense of purpose akin to bands the group clearly admires, such as the Killers and Arcade Fire (whose reported collaboration with the dance-minded producer James Murphy might end up sounding more like Imagine Dragons than many hipsters will want to admit).
On Thursday vaguely phrased anthems “Bleeding Out” and “On Top of the World” projected the band’s craftiness, and the music’s headlong urgency merely felt like a stage direction.
“I’m never changing who I am,” Reynolds insisted in “It’s Time,” but minus even a cursory sense of who he is -- and who's trying to change him -- his eager defiance had no effect.