So I’m being a bit trendy here, but I want to go ahead and write this entry before the title is dated in about a week. For right now, Of Monsters and Men still qualifies as a band most people I know haven’t heard of, so they’re the subject of this week’s column.
A Few weeks ago, I began hearing a song I didn’t recognize quite frequently on KXT, a public radio station here in Dallas-Fort Worth that plays a wide variety of music. I wondered if I was listening to a new song by Mumford & Sons that featured a female voice, or some other such exponent of the U.K.’s recent folk revival. After extensive research (read: going to KXT’s website and looking up playlists) I discovered that I had been listening to “Little Talks” by a hot new Icelandic band by the name of Of Monsters and Men. I decided that they were worth some investigation.
Of Monsters and Men formed through the collaboration of singers Nana Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson in 2010. Within a year of its inception, Of Monsters and Men had both secured a slot in and won Iceland’s national battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir. Around this time Seattle radio station KEXP caught wind of the group and released a video of the group performing the song “Little Talks” acoustically. Of Monsters and Men had a foothold in the U.S.
Musically, Of Monsters and Men describe themselves as “crafters of folkie pop songs”, a designation that the group lives up to on their debut album My Head is an Animal. I’ve not been the first two compare the group to Mumford & Sons, and the male vocals provided by Þórhallsson and the pounding kick drum that drives most of the tunes of the album easily remind the listener of the British string band that burst onto the airwaves in late 2010. Þórhallsson’s voice itself is clear and plaintive, reminiscent of Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford or Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. When paired with the unique-yet-familiar vocals of Hilmarsdóttir on such songs as the album’s lead-off track “Dirty Paws” and the follow-up single “King and Lionheart”, the two singers seem to manage a tangible emotional content while never straining their voices to great dynamic or melodic heights. It should also be noted that Of Monsters and Mens’ songs are in English, and the singers’ accents could almost pass off as British (thus the easy comparisons to British folk groups).
(Personal sidebar: While living in Peru, I met a lovely young Icelandic girl who spoke English very clearly, and with a similarly quasi-British accent. She said it was due to Icelanders’ consumption of British television. I wonder if this is relevant.)
The resulting sound is a surprisingly soft and warm lyrical aspect to a music that swells from finger-picked acoustic guitars and softly played piano to pounding drums and soaring horns. Tracks such as “Love Love Love” really spotlight this dynamic range, as the song is light all the way through an arrangement of guitars and accordion, but feels as if it might explode at any moment. This is par for the course on My Head is an Animal. Something about the way these songs are written leads the listener to an anticipation that even the most quiet and calm of musical passages can burst into a thick wall of acoustic sound. That Of Monsters and Men have a penchant for ominous sound effects and gang vocal shouts only adds to this. Expanding around these musical punctuation marks are clouds of guitar, keys, and percussion. The songs onMy Head is an Animal seem to exist in a wide and open space- almost as if the music reflects how one might imagine Iceland (I’ve heard it’s not all expansive tundra, but it’s hard to shake that mental image). A healthy reverberation placed over all of the instrumental and vocal tracks makes the album interesting to listen to spatially. My Head is an Animal sounds like a folk band playing very far away that has somehow echoed very close to the listener’s ears.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Of Monsters and Men appears to be on the verge of major success stateside. After KEXP in Seattle’s profiling of the group, radio stations across the country have begun giving “Little Talks” airplay, and a beautifully-shot music video has appeared on the internet. I recently discovered that the group will be performing as a showcase artist at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival in just over a week, and multiple dates across a North American tour are beginning to sell out. All of this is doubly amazing given that the group hasn’t even released their debut album in the United States yet. My Head is an Animal officially becomes available in the U.S. on April third, though tracks from the release can be streamed at various points throughout the internet, and a number of high-quality live videos are on youtube. Of Monsters and Men can be found online through their website, a tumblr(!), and on twitter with the handle @monstersandmen. No one is really listening much to Of Monsters and Men yet, but the new depth they bring, both melodically and geographically, to the recent surge of well-written and emotive folk music makes the band worthy of all of the new exposure it seems they will be privy to over the next few weeks. I encourage all in Austin for South by Southwest to stop by Of Monsters and Men’s showcase, and all who can’t make it to the festival to keep youtube-ing until April third.