I’m not often blown away by an album, especially on first listen (an unfortunate byproduct of how much music I listen to), but My Head Is an Animal, from Iceland’s latest export, Of Monster and Men, popped my cork instantly. Joyous, melodic, authentic, sprawling, uplifting and just plain fun, this is a fantastic debut. You’re going to hear a lot from them this year!
I’m amazed by how much music comes out of Iceland, a country of only 320,000 people. Sigur Ros (a personal favorite) and Bjork are justifiably renown, but there are a number of other artists as well (e.g. Eberg). Of Monsters and Men have little in common with their well known compatriots, although Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s voice shares some similarities with Bjork, and like certain Sigur Ros songs, there’s a kind of orchestral uplift to their music. Instead, they sound like a mix of Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire (two of my all-time favorites) with a little Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros thrown in: use of a wide range of instruments, group vocals, simple but often intense and driven percussion.
The opening track, “Dirty Paws,” is a beautiful example of the band’s sound and power (although it sounds a little too much like “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros). A quiet acoustic guitar chimes away, then a male and female voice join in, harmonizing delicately until the band pounds in with thumping bass drum, ringing piano and group shouts. It’s powerful and dramatic – and unlike a lot of albums that start with a bang and then fizzle, Of Monsters and Men keep knocking out awesome tunes: “King and Lionheart” is another great slice of baroque pop; “Mountain Sound” thrashes along with a driving snare drum and features the male vocalist in the band, Ragnar Þórhallsson, with Nanna leading the highly catchy chorus; and then it quiets down on the sweet “Slow and Steady.” It’s been a long time since I’ve heard four such amazing songs in a row on one album.
I’ve always had a softness for a song with a well placed “hey” or “yeah,” and with “enthusiastic” (as opposed to perfect and/or highly harmonized) group vocals. These guys know how to do that. The first single, “Little Talk,” is a great example. It’s driven by a great horn riff, driving bass, snare drum and tambourine, and wonderful group shouts of “hey.” There’s also a strong sense of dynamics here, a real understanding of how to take a song from quiet/slow to fast/loud in an organic and natural way.
Arcade Fire is obviously a strong influence throughout, and perhaps most notably on “Six Weeks” with its opening group chorus and minor and 7ths chord progressions. After this song, the album as a whole slows down for several numbers, including the pretty “Sloom” with its sweet “So love me father and love me mother and love my sister as well” chorus. Then things pick up again with “Lakehouse,” another slow burner that starts with a beautiful quiet duet over acoustic guitar until crashing into moving orchestral territory with its uplifting chorus and chants of “Where we are, where we are.”
I use the word “authentic” to describe Of Monsters and Men. (Authenticity has always been important to me, but it’s really on my mind these days after reading this article in The New Yorker about how hit songs are produced these days, the very opposite of authenticity.) It’s a guess on my part, but this music feels like it was created by musicians who love playing together. I can see them in a studio, in a circle facing each other, watching each other’s leads and building the music, not with the cold calculation of many artists, but with love and a desire to create a transcendent experience – like good music should.