In Brief: There’s nothing scary about this Icelandic band, but they do wield some monstrous hooks. I may have belatedly stumbled upon the best new band of 2012.
You can put the Icelandic folk/rock group Of Monsters and Men right up there with Vampire Weekend on the list of “Bands whose names make you think they’re tough guy metal outfits, but they aren’t.” It’s an amusing moniker – one that is just as likely to lead to expectations of cinematic grandeur as it is to lead to grammatical frustration on the part of those trying to spread the word about them. “Have you ever heard of Of Monsters and Men?” “No, but their name reminds me of of Montreal“. See what I mean?
Oh hey, and speaking of Montreal (and not speaking of of Montreal, who aren’t from there), there’s one band whose name apparently must be brought up whenever Of Monsters and Men are discussed. That band would be Arcade Fire. You see, OMAM broke out in a big way with their very first single, “Little Talks”, and when tastemakers like Rolling Stone got a hold of it, and heard a band with horns, an accordion, male and female lead vocals working in tandem, and a lot of people shouting “Hey!”, they saw fit to dub the band “the next Arcade Fire”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the comparison, as it applies to that one song. Listening to it gives me the same sort of exhilarating feeling that I’d get from a song like “No Cars Go”. Arcade Fire has become one of my favorite bands over the years, and there are certainly far worse influences for a young band to learn from. The problem is, this is a superficial comparison that doesn’t apply too well beyond a handful of songs by either band. Dig deeper into an Arcade Fire album, and you’ll get more downtrodden ruminations on suburban life and broken marriages and social justice, etc., and the occasional smattering of French lyrics. Dig deeper into OMAM’s work, and you just get a different mood entirely. Their vocals go down smoother, their energy level is often higher, and their overall attitude seems more wide-eyed and hopeful, even in their more melancholy songs, rather than being heavy on the angst. I mean no disrespect to Arcade Fire when I say that. They’ve earned a well-deserved spot in the indie rock pantheon, while OMAM isn’t necessarily even aiming for a spot on the same map. There’s really nothing all that “indie” about them, except for the fact that they’re from a foreign country whose most well-known musical luminaries up until now have been Björk and Sigur Rós (who these guys also sound nothing like), and that they’ve had to earn their exposure overseas by word of mouth before getting a major label to re-release their stuff here in America. Honestly, any new artist these days that isn’t a gyrating pop star or a bling-heavy rapper is going to get labelled “indie”, because it’s the new word for “alternative”. That only demonstrates that folksy rock music, even with full-color production and major label support, isn’t the “in” thing right now.
So what’s the story with these guys? Well, for starters, “guys” is an inaccurate descriptor of the band, since it was started by a woman. Young singer-songwriter Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (seriously, she hasn’t even hit 25 yet – what am I doing with my life?) originally envisioned the group as support for her solo project, but it sort of grew into a full band thing as she and Ragnar Þórhallsson (henceforth referred to as just “Nanna” and “Raggi”, because seriously, Iceland?) began to co-create a lot of songs and he started sharing more of the lead vocals. The interplay between the two is one thing that helps to keep their music fresh, despite the proliferation of indie rock bands with a kaleidoscope of instrumental support behind them nowadays. For those who tire easily of the genre’s subversive and down-tempo habits (I don’t necessarily, but solid up-tempo rock albums seem rarer today than they used to), OMAM will be a breath of fresh air, since their vocal hooks and thundering rhythms tend to strike early and often. The group is capable of beautifully textured restraint as well, which their debut album My Head Is an Animal demonstrates on a handful of tracks spread rather evenly throughout. What’s most exhilarating to me about this band is how steeped in history their music and lyrics feel. Despite the inherent poppiness of some of it, there are melodies on this album that feel like they could be hundreds of years old, as if some of them were Celtic or Viking folk standards back in the day.
Now I should probably note at this point that all of My Head Is an Animal‘s songs are, in fact, original compositions sung in English. You probably wouldn’t guess where the group was from if nobody told you, unless you’re really good with accents (like how they pronounce “eyes” as “ice” – which for some reason I find absolutely adorable). I bring that up, because the few examples of popular musicians from Iceland we’ve been given so far have led us to suspect mystical musical dreamworlds filled with unintelligible gobbledygook. Listening to this record, I could just as easily believe that they’re from the Maritime Provinces of Canada, or New England, or old England, or Ireland, or really anywhere with lots of cloudy grey days and rocky coasts dotted by lighthouses. So you need not fear any language or cultural barriers here. Of Monsters and Men basically build their own folklore from the ground up, with their songs telling stories that are easy to get emotionally swept up in, even if you don’t always understand who the characters are or what quests they’re on. In their mellower moments, they can conjure up lighthearted love songs that could just as easily be featured in some offbeat romantic comedy, but even in doing this, they never make acoustic pop music feel overly commercialized. It’s got a distinctive heart and personality throughout that demonstrates a band with diverse skills, that doesn’t try to use them just to ape other popular acts. It’s incredibly easy to get comfortable with their sound, and yet I don’t think I’ve heard a feel-good folk/rock album quite like this one for some time. This album just makes me immensely happy every time I put it on. At the end of the day, I think it’s better to do this sort of thing really well than it is to try to sound “Important with a Capital I” like some other famous band with bloggers following their every move. (Again, no disrespect to those “Important” bands, but they got there by doing what they loved doing, too.)
1. Dirty Paws
The opening track is an odd tale of a war between four-footed, furry beasts and a swarm of bees, for control of a forest. It plays like an old folk tale, but there are these oddball non-sequiturs, like one of the animals have a son who mows the lawn and is “an OK guy”, that let you know it’s more than likely a modern construction. It’s no less baffling and amusing for it, though, and it’s set against the perfect hybrid of laid-back folk music and grandiose, theatrical rock. Nanni and Raggi duet softly during each verse, slowly bringing the pace of the song up to a fever pitch as the chorus comes in – which isn’t really a conventional chorus, so much as it’s a refrain of wordless vocal harmonies, “la la la” and that sort of thing, and a strong piano melody that comes cascading into the mix. Listening to this, you get the immediate impression that these guys have a flair for showmanship.
2. King and Lionheart
Nanna takes the lead here, on an anthem that speaks of steadfast courage in the face of danger. It’s easy to imagine her as the queen of some small but hearty hamlet, on the verge of getting beseiged by pirates or mythical monsters or something, but refusing to back down as these threats loom over her village. Her melodies are bright and encouraging here, and the song comes to life with vibrant electric guitar, piano, and accordion, as she sings her mantra: “Howling ghosts, they reappear/In mountains that are stacked with fear/But you’re a king and I’m a lionheart.” When I think of kings and lions, the kid in me gets flashbacks to things like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and that Disney adaptation of Robin Hood in which he’s a cartoon fox and King Richard is a lion. (Why didn’t I say The Lion King? Didn’t see it until I was an adult, sadly.) But shoot, a modern story like Brave might be an even better fit, given that the attitude of the song is more like “Stand up and fight alongside your man”, and it doesn’t show a hint of “damsel in distress”. However you look at it, it’s a solid follow-up single, only hampered slightly by how repetitive its refrain can start to get toward the end of the song.
3. Mountain Sound
Speaking of follow-up singles, it’s not like the original album was lacking in that department at all, but this is one of the two tracks that was added on to the U.S. release, presumably in hopes of additional airplay. It fits so perfectly into the album that you’d never guess it was a new addition if I hadn’t told you. It’s an extremely upbeat and infectious little song, with a kinetic rhythm and a strong keyboard riff, but its most striking element is the vocal tag-team performance that defines the chorus. For the most part, this is Raggi’s song, and he’s got that slightly weathered sort of tint to his voice that fits the genre perfectly, while a bit of the Icelandic accent comes through as well, but neither of these things disguises the vibrant youthfulness of the band’s performance. Nanna takes over at the chorus, and the way her voice rings out is just an amazing sound to behold, with the rest of the band chiming in a sort of call and response: “Hold your horses now/(We sleep until the sun goes down)/Through the woods we ran/(Deep into the mountain sound)”. The mood of it is so compelling, that I just can’t help but want to go on a little mountain retreat of my own, discover some tiny village tucked away in its crevasses somewhere, and go on an early morning hike through the woods before the clouds have burned away, then return to my cabin and sleep away the afternoon.
4. Slow and Steady
The second of the two new songs definitely puts a different spin on the OMAM sound, in that it’s less folksy and more ambient, slowly building off of the cool, meditative sound of Árni Guðjónsson‘s keyboards. It’s the first thing on the album that isn’t an obvious single, but it’s breathtaking in its own way, bringing more of a nuanced vocal performance out of Nanna, and also giving drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson (you’re killing me with these names, Iceland) a chance to shine, as he gradually brings the song from a slow simmer to a full-on boil. The build-up suits the lyrics perfectly, since Nanna describes the slow and steady movement as making her “feel like a waterfall”, and the effect is sort of like watching the ice melt as that waterfall comes to life in the spring – a cold standstill becomes a trickle, which gradually gives way to torrents of emotion. At some points I’m reminded of the similar build-up in The New Pornographers‘ song “The Bleeding Heart Show” – and don’t take that as a note-for-note comparison of the two songs, since that one’s a classic and what OMAM does here is a little more on the subtle side. But both songs build to a stellar vocal climax in a way that strikes roughly the same emotional chord within me. While it’s a bit of a sonic detour for the band, it’s an entirely worthwhile one, demonstrating that they’re definitely not a one-trick pony.
5. From Finner
Out of the entire album, I get the whole “old world” feel the most from this song. It’s got a waltz-like tempo to it, and the chorus is heavy on the accordion. If this instrument only conjures up images of goofy men in lederhosen playing polkas, then I feel sorry for you, because for me, this song conjures up images of epic adventures at sea, with its strong bass and pounding drums hitting with the force of giant waves. Again, Nanna and Raggi prove themselves to be a formidable vocal duo, with Nanna bringing fragility to this tale of being “So far from home, all alone, but we’re so happy”, while Raggi brings the gusto and the excitement to it. I love the highs and lows as this song rides its waves, and the excited shouts of “Hey Hey!!!” that make it feel like everybody’s gathered in a town square, doing some sort of traditional folk dance. For sure, this will go on one of my “travel soundtracks” someday.
6. Little Talks
The album’s flagship song honestly sounds kind of funny coming after “From Finner” – since that one ended with its lively “Hey!”s, and this one pretty much starts with them. I think the original track order with these two songs flipped, works better, because doing it this way can give a casual listener the false perception that the band is re-using audience participation tricks to distract from a lack of substance. (My initial fear upon being introduced to the band via their performance of this song on Saturday Night Live was that we had another Lumineers on our hands, but that fear was quickly rendered moot by the lively performance.) It’s really only on these two songs and “Dirty Paws” that they pull that trick, and none of them can be reduced to mindless audience sing-alongs. As much as the shouting, the strong accordion riff, and the accompanying horns (hey, that’s different for a folk song!) want to dominate your attention with the massive hook they conspire to drill into your head, what really makes this one interesting is the lyrical conversation taking place between Nanna and Raggi, letting us hear the inner thoughts of a couple in the midst of an argument, the discord between them making their old, wooden house feel like a cold and unfamiliar place, or maybe even a not-quite-seaworthy ship tossed about on an unforgiving ocean. I love how the two vocalists split apart, going off on their own tangents, only to dovetail back together for that huge chorus, which ends on an ambiguous and somewhat chilling thought: “Though the truth may vary, this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.” As the last line trails off into the sounds of creaking timbers, I’m left with no doubt that these folks are master mood-setters.
7. Six Weeks
Lots of group vocals and hearty melodies comes to the forefront in this long, anthemic song. There’s a bit of a primal feel to it – and sure, as the tempo starts to sneak up to a faster pace while the group builds in fervor, this might admittedly be one other place where comparisons to Arcade Fire aren’t terribly out of line. Still, I’d never picture Arcade Fire as brawny hunters, and this song seems to be all about a trip deep into the woods for a man to connect with his inner beast: “Alone, I fight these animals/Alon, until I get home”, goes the chorus. It’s mostly Raggi’s turn to be in the spotlight here, except for one quiet little bit that temporarily changes the character of the song as Nanna breaks in, her character quite literally following Raggi’s into the woods, and into potential danger. I’m sure there’s a good narrative reason for it, but it messes with the momentum of the song, leading me to ultimately feel like it runs a bit too long. Still, it’s a strong performance for four or so of its five-and-a-half minutes.
8. Love Love Love
Nanna’s most vulnerable song is up next – here the band is stripped back to a simple acoustic strum accompanied lightly by the accordion and some sort of keyboard or glockenspiel sound. The image I get in my head here is of the faint glow of a streetlight shining into a woman’s bedroom during the wee hours of the morning where she sits at her desk, trying to collect her thoughts and write them down. It just has that sort of “journal-y” quality to it, as she ponders what makes her lovable to a man who seems to be totally smitten for her, when she knows her own dark thoughts all too well to believe that she deserves him. You might not expect much beyond modern-day hippie musings on love from a song with such a simple title and a repetitive chorus, but the verses – which are sung thoughtfully in a hush, almost whispered tone – give it the sort of dimension and fragility it needs to really hit home. Though the word “grace” is never uttered here, it turns out to be a compelling meditation on that very notion.
9. Your Bones
This one might have the most epic melody of anything on the album. I try not to throw the word “epic” around lightly, but it fits here. Raggi absolutely owns that melody, offering up one of his best performances as he sings of a people who built boats from crude implements such as feathers and bones, who set fire to everything they new, and set off on a voyage to new shores. I love the quietness of the first verse, how Raggi’s voice is just laid bare, with little other than the thundering boom of the “Distant rhythm of the drum” that his lyrics reference, and then the whole band kicks in and the song gets extremely big. There’s such a dramatic lift to the verse melody, which is the main motif of the song, that the chorus seems meek and mild by comparison, but it’s striking in its call for a nomadic people to remember who they are and where they came from: “So hold on/Hold on to what we are/Hold on to your heart.” The band knows they’ve got a memorable hook here, one which feels more like it was entrusted to them by their ancestors than like they made it up themselves, and they do everything in their power to drive it home, with huge group vocals and the triumphant bleating of a trumpet as it builds to its climax.
Another simple song, based around an easygoing acoustic strum, comes up here – actually, this one’s a refugee from the front half of the album, where it occupied the “See, we can be mellow!” spot now taken by “Slow and Steady”. This might actually work better, as it serves as a breather between two big, emotional anthems. If not for the trembling electric guitar ambiance in the background, you could almost imagine them singing this one around a campfire, completely unplugged – it’s only later that the bass and drums come in, and even then, they’re largely overshadowed by everyone clapping hands to keep a simple beat. And it seems like such a cute, lovey-dovey little song about family at first, given the chorus: “So love me mother, and love me father, and love my sister as well.” It’s only when you take a closer look at the verses that things get more surreal, as Nanna and Raggi trade off bizarre lines about getting tangled in seaweed and monstrous cats haunting the city and so forth. Whatevr this all means, the song strikes a good balance between “straightforward audience sing-along” and “subversively bizarre”.
A close contender for the album’s emotional climax shows up here, in the second-to-last slot where such things are usually appropriate. If “Your Bones” was Raggi’s big, weepy anthem, then this is Nanna’s. It’s got a warm hint of nostalgia to it, but also a slightly haunted feeling, her clear, youthful voice hinting at a loss of innocence as she begs, “Can you chase this fire away?” Beyond that and her reminiscence about a special house she used to visit in her younger days, this one’s abstract enough that I’m not quite sure what it’s about. Whatever the subject matter, it would certainly make a fine concert closer for the band, as it doesn’t take long for everyone to come crashing in at the same time, with brazen electric guitar chords, loud and proud accordion, and rolling snare drums, turning the song into an up-tempo march that work together with another spirited round of “la la la”s to make the song feel like it could be played at the world’s happiest funeral. Admittedly, if you’re not a big fan of groups filling space with stuff like “la la la”, then you might find some of these bigger, more climactic songs near the end of the album to be a bit repetitive. But I’ll give them a pass for that since even without everyone singing in unison at the end, the musicians are playing their hearts out and the whole thing is rattle-the-rafters exhilirating.
12. Yellow Light
For me, the only point where the album slips up is on its final track. It’s the only song where they go for a chill, meditative approach and actually stick to it for the entire time, thwarting our expectations of it building into something big. That may well be a plus for some folks – I like the idea in principle, but in practice, it allows them to get away with writing an intriguing half of a song, and then letting a repeating melody of bells and keyboards drift along endlessly for two or three full minutes. The beginning of the song is fascinating in its stillness, with Nanna and Raggi once again trading lines to great effect – she’s uncertain about wading deeper into the ocean, and he’s there to encourage her to ignore the big flashing warning signs, and be immersed in the dreamy, murky world below. The implication seems to be that this isn’t a literal drowning, but rather a place where a person willingly faces down their worst fears. It’s too good of a premise to be wasting on an endless, and somewhat lifeless vamp, which could either build into something cool, or venture off further and further into abstraction – but either way, it needs to do something but march on and on with that same old melody for as long as it does. A bit of a downer for an otherwise fantastic album to end on, but hey, it’s rare that I make it even half this far into an album without finding these sorts of flaws.
TRACKS FROM THE ORIGINAL RELEASE:
This was originally the album’s third track, kicked to the curb in favor of the shiny new “Mountain Sound”. (It survives as a bonus track for Americans purchasing the album via iTunes.) While this was certainly a trade up, the song they ditched is still an excellent one, which demonstrates a quirkier side of the band than you would otherwise hear. The rhythm is deliciously offbeat, some slightly off-key whistling opens the song, as if these guys were the Smurfs or something, and the horns and percussion are way out front, making it one of the album’s livelier offerings. The song, as far as I can tell, is from the point of view of a polar bear, separated from his sleuth (seriously, that’s what they call a group of bears, go look it up) by what I can only assume is a break in the ice, and forced to wander the frozen sea alone. As is the theme on much of this album, he views it as a journey rather than just lamenting being lost and stranded. One thing that’s interesting to note about the end of this short, weird little song is how it intentionally leaves out its last word – after several repetitions of “I’m already there”, it just trails off on “already…” The same thing happened in “Mountain Sound”, with the line “Sleep until the sun goes…” I don’t know if that holds any significance. I just wanted to point it out.
The Sinking Man
Only Icelanders got this stark little hidden track, found by skipping forward through a few minutes of silence following “Yellow Light”. It sounds like little more than a demo of Raggi and Nanna harmonizing over slow acoustic guitar, possibly following up on the theme of that song as a drowning victim pushes a loved one away with their final breath. It’s a sad little coda to an already uneasy final song, and I suppose it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to take this one out of context. I’m just not sure of the efficacy of making it a hidden track the first time around, then leaving it out altogether. Finding a way to let that long, hazy outro from “Yellow Light” slowly bleed into this would have unified the two pieces and given them both a little more resonance. Anyway, if you don’t live on a sub-Arctic volcanic island, then you probably don’t have this song on your copy of the album, and it’s probably not worth the trouble to go dig it up.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?:
Dirty Paws $1.75
King and Lionheart $1.25
Mountain Sound $2
Slow and Steady $1.50
From Finner $2
Little Talks $2
Six Weeks $1.25
Love Love Love $1.25
Your Bones $2
Yellow Light $.50
Dirty Paws $1.75
King and Lionheart $1.25
Numb Bears $1.50
Little Talks $2
From Finner $2
Six Weeks $1.25
Love Love Love $1
Your Bones $2
Yellow Light $.50
The Sinking Man $.25
Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson: Lead vocals, acoustic guitar
Brynjar Leifsson: Lead guitar, baritone guitar, backing vocals
Kristján Páll Kristjánsson: Bass guitar, backing vocals
Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Árni Guðjónsson: Accordion, piano, organ, backing vocals (left the band in 2012)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.