“Beautiful,” “majestic,” and “inspiring” are terms that can easily characterize the country of Iceland. It can also accurately describe the music that emanates from it. Need evidence? Then look no further than Sigur Rós and Björk – Iceland’s leading pioneers of the native music scene for more than a decade. But lately, another Icelandic band has gone from making ripples to waves across the Atlantic. Meet Of Monsters and Men, a six-piece indie-folk outfit from the capital city of Reykjavík that formed only two years ago, and already has achieved worldwide recognition, thanks in part to their song “Little Talks” receiving radio air play. Though their debut full-length, My Head is an Animal, was released last year only in Iceland, this week will mark its worldwide release via Universal Records.
My Head is an Animal opens with “Dirty Paws,” a number that begins with delicate plucking of an acoustic guitar and the dual male/female vocals of Nanna Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar þórhallsson. About a minute in, a burst of joyous energy suddenly kicks in that’s led by drummer Arnar Hilmarsson thumping bass drum, backed by choral melodies.
“King and Lionheart” follows up the opening track and establishes itself as one of the album’s highlights. Based on the title alone, you can get a hint that the song is about being courageous, having bravado, and never turning back when faced with challenges. This notion is supported by the lyrics: “and as the world comes to an end / I’ll be here to hold your hand cause / you’re my king and I’m your lionheart” and the thrice repetition of “we won’t run.” The music lends itself as the visual (or sonic) backdrop displaying this journey as the foot-tapping percussion drives towards the chorus, which glistens brightly with each cymbal crash. It’s a musical tale about perseverance that builds every second until it reaches its victorious finish with full instrumentation that features a blaring accordion.
“Mountain Sounds” and “Slow and Steady” are two songs that are included in the U.S. release of the album that balance each other out in terms of contrasting tempos. The former required no build-up as it immediately starts off with upbeat drums and Árni Guðjónsson’s catchy piano melody, while þórhallsson and Hilmarsdóttir take turns taking the lead on vocals with a choir-backed refrain. The title of the latter accurately describes the tenderly pace of the song where Hilmarsdóttir sings about a change occurring within herself. This moment of vulnerability and sensitivity continues on “Sloom.” With a more minimal and simple approach, the two vocalists sing a duet with only an acoustic guitar and a rhythmic handclap.
At this point, it’s blatantly obvious that Of Monsters and Men’s strong point lies in the dual male/female vocals that not only feed of each other, but complement and emphasize each other incredibly well throughout the album. This is best exemplified in their aforementioned popular single “Little Talks.” The central narrative focuses on trying to move past a certain tragedy where one sings about uncertainty, distress, and being lost while the other sings about being there for her every step of the way; it’s romantic, really. The duality comprised of somber lyrics and the lively use of horns and exuberant shouts of “Hey!” further add to the drama. But the most beautiful moment comes when their vocals harmonize at the refrain, “though the truth may vary, this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore,” showing that regardless of what happens, they’ll always be together.
My Head is an Animal is a highly impressive debut that’s full of emotional lyrics, lush, diverse instrumentation, and a powerful and dynamic male/female vocals. Indie-folk has been on the rise for the past couple of years, to the point where bands rooted in that genre have reached mainstream/commercial success (i.e. nominated and/or winning a Grammy). Of Monsters and Men are definitely on that path and it won’t be long until they reach the pinnacle of their success.