For such a small and isolated island, Iceland keeps producing musicians and Of Monsters and Men are the latest act to set sail from their Nordic homeland in search of success.
Released a year ago in Iceland, debut album ‘My Head Is An Animal‘ finally introduces these shores to their brand of semi-psychedelic folk-pop.
However, as has become common in more recent years, Of Monsters And Men eschew the intimacy propagated by the folk artists of yore, and like contemporaries such as Arcade Fire and (what may be considered a slightly less than favourable comparison) Mumford and Sons, inflate their songs with one eye fixed firmly on the stadium.
There has often been an inherent quirkiness to alternative Icelandic music, notably Sigur Ros’ own language ‘Hopelandish’ framing their post-rock soundscapes and lest we forget, Bjork’s downright bizarreness. Whilst Of Monsters And Men’s music is pretty simple and straightforward by comparison, they are indeed fond of an oddball turn of phrase – in English – starting with the album title itself.
‘Dirty Paws‘ has Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and her fellow guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson cooing about an animal’s son who mowed the lawn…and the story his pet dragonfly had to tell. Obvious subject matter of course. With that up their sleeve what else is there to open the album with? Although. seriously, such fantastical storytelling is simply the continuation of the folk tradition.
The band’s traditional, earthy, acoustic instruments such as accordions, glockenspiels and horns are underpinned by glacial electric guitars to add an expansive dimension to their sound. This is neither overly saturated nor is it oppressive. And rather than smother such songs as ‘Your Bones‘ and ‘Sloom‘ beneath delay pedals and distortion, instead quiet jangles and swells paint a picture of Iceland’s scenic beauty.
There’s also a fondness for the ‘quiet bit, loud bit’ dynamic. And whilst the jump between the two isn’t quite as large a leap in decibels as by Nirvana or the Pixies, ‘Lakehouse‘ in particular exemplifies the band’s preferred gearshift from campfire cool to driving, Arcade Fire-like stadium sing-along, culminating in lighters-aloft crescendos.
At times, it seems the band are trying too hard to push the right commercial buttons. It may seem harsh, but ‘Mountain Sound’s bouncing rhythms and generic, derivative chord structure is rather reminiscent of bubblegum Scandinavian band Alphabeat (no, never heard of ‘em either… ahem). And though the success of single ‘Little Talks’ vindicates it, in the company of the other stronger tracks on this album, it’s simply throwaway.
‘My Head Is An Animal’s strongest moments are found on the delicate and simple ‘Love Love Love‘ and the brooding, atmospheric album closer ‘Yellow Light‘. On the former, Hilmarsdóttir’s husky tones this time avoid tales of ghosts, monsters and snow. Keeping it simple, it’s a love song spun on its head by a subtly bittersweet sentiment. Less bombast by the band members is most certainly more, but perhaps it’s one to play only on a smaller stage.
Meanwhile, ‘Yellow Light’ circles line by line as each vocalist takes a turn over simple arpeggios. Hilmarsson’s marching military drums build the track slowly, harmonies and glockenspiels vying for space beneath blanketing feedback cover. Dynamically, it’s the best moment on the album as a slowburning crescendo of repetition hypnotically swirls, never quite reaching the storm it promises to break into, instead retreating softly, like a breaking of the clouds, as lullaby-like glocks close the show.
Of Monsters And Men’s debut may not stand as tall next to some of their more illustrious compatriot’s acclaimed efforts, but the point of ‘My Head Is An Animal’ is not to be groundbreaking, inventive, nor ‘difficult’. Theirs is a poppier world to inhabit.
Granted it’s a strange one, full of talking trees and war-declaring bees nonetheless, but as starts go, it’s a solid one.