Looking for the next Arcade Fire?
It seems like every band is hoping to be the next Arcade Fire or Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. I imagine the DJs at all the public radio stations receive hundreds of music files upon the hour every hour, and in some ways I both envy and do not envy the task of giving them all a listen to find that band which is both talented and original, and not an imitation of a current fan favorite. It would seem that the DJs have stumbled upon a band from Iceland called Of Monsters and Men who may be the next darlings of independent music for their charming vocals, enchanted lyrics, and subtly layered instruments.
When I think of music in Iceland, I think of Bjork and the Sugarcubes. I still like listening to old Sugarcubes tunes — they still seem fresh and dynamic, whimsical and crazy, mixing the masculine and feminine to create a culture that all their own. I guess I expect a band from Iceland to somehow pay homage to their famous predecessors, to build upon that legacy. Of Monsters and Men, despite a band whose very name evokes William Blake-like tones of mythology, morality, and inescapable duality, really doesn’t sound like The Sugarcubes at all.
In fact, they kinda sound like Arcade Fire.
Maybe even more like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
And personally, I hear a lot of The XX, Kate Nash, and Mumford and Sons, too. Maybe even some of The Decemberists, lyrically, but I could just be biased there.
Of Monsters and Men has a sweet success story, too. They won the Icelandic version of Battle of the Bands, the Músiktilraunir, something that not even the Sugarcubes won (though to be fair, I have no idea if they even competed in it). Their song “Little Talks” became a top ten hit in Iceland and is now receiving recognition and airplay on the public radio stations on this side of the Atlantic.
It’s no surprise. “Little Talks” is a catchy song, leaving the listener feeling good and perhaps a little more upbeat by the end. It’s this song that leads me to think that anyone who loves the catchy rhythms and happy narrative lyrics of the now ubiquitous Edward Sharpe tune “Home” would certainly want to give Of Monsters and Men a listen. I was charmed by the comingling vocals of lead singers Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, the atmospheric sounds of a creaky abode on the swirling seas, and the affirmative chants of the six-member band acting as a chorus. I think it was this latter part, a repeated device used in a handful of their songs, that reminded me of Arcade Fire.
Their full-length debut album My Head Is an Animal is set to release early this year. (It was released in Iceland on September 20th, 2011 on the Record Records label.) I’m happy to report that the rest of the album holds up to the enchanting “Little Talks.” Many of their songs feature animals and mythical encounters in magical woods. Animals talk, supernatural events haunt, and legends gain life in their tales. But the stories in the songs never replace the instrumentation and the lyrics, the vocals, and the band working evenly together to create an impressive collection of songs.
The band has been falling into that Indie-Folk category, for traits such as twangy guitars, lazily buzzing accordions, and a mix of new folk rhythms and old folk traditions. “King and Lionheart” features all of these elements plus the wonderful story “singing” of Nanna and Ragnar — almost like a call-and-response style of duet. This is where I hear the XX influence: Ragnar’s vocals are especially reminiscent of the XX. Also, the slow build up of the song is similar: it starts with the dual vocals and slowly the band’s instruments build into a crescendo of sound.
I personally love these new big folk-rock bands with all the variety of vocals and instruments coming together-instruments we haven’t seen in popular music in some time. Of Monsters and Men draws on native sounds and experiments with new rhythms. Truly, the songs on My Head Is an Animal are carefully crafted compositions, like canvases exploding with magnificent color and patterns.
On the whole, the album is Romantic with a capital R. And I do think they are similar to their approach in songwriting to The Decemberists. Like Colin Meloy, Nanna and Ragnar read stories that inspire their own songwriting. This was Meloy’s approach in writing The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. And like the songs on these albums, Of Monsters and Men takes bits of fable and folklore to create their own mythology in their songs. The whimsical sound combines with simple, childlike metaphors which explore the worlds of death, ghosts, ships, houses… all in lyrics which are fantastical, even nonsensical, yet infectious with their layered melodies and choral enthusiasm.
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