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One of the Best Debuts in Quite Some Time
on April 5, 2012
In 2010, Of Monsters and Men won Músiktilraunir, Iceland's nationwide battle-of-the-bands competition. For those that may not think of this as an impressive feat, keep in mind Iceland is the country that has given us the likes of Sigur Rós and Björk. Drawing early comparisons to Arcade Fire, Mumford and Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Of Monsters and Men is an alternative folk sextet led by the vocal pair Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson. After a race between labels to sign the band, Of Monsters and Men landed with Universal Music Group and now their highly anticipated debut is finally here.
Considering the recent success of debut records by Mumford and Sons as well as The Head and The Heart, fans' expectations for Of Monsters and Men are understandably high. With a wide variety of instruments including brass, accordion, glockenspiel, melodica, piano, and guitar filling any of the gaps left by the stellar vocal harmonies, Of Monsters and Men have clearly latched onto a winning formula within their genre. The two lead vocalists could both easily carry an album on their own, but it is the blending of their voices that sets Of Monsters and Men apart from any act that could be considered their competition.
There are many moments, however, when one of the two voices is given the lead. The result is as much a pleasant change of pace as it is a means for building the overall emotion of the song. For instance, on "King and Lionheart," Nanna takes the opening of each verse alone, but Ragnar's voice is gradually blended in more and more. The instrumentation of the track grows substantially behind the voices as well so by the time Nanna and Ragnar are both harmonizing every word together, the energy of the entire song has flourished.
Similar to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' debut, "My Head is an Animal" remains far more positive and upbeat than Mumford and Sons' "Sigh No More." The album's opener, "Dirty Paws," is a song about war, but when that war is between bees, birds, and furry animals, it's hard not to smile as you listen. With a chorus of "la la las" and the occasional chant of "hey!" the band practically forces their audience to sing along.
Even the album's slowest moments have aspects that move the music forward and keep it from ever feeling tired. The track "Slow and Steady" lives up to its name in pace, but a heartbeat kick drum accompanied by a shimmering, reverb-laden electric guitar adds just enough to the harmonized vocal work to keep the five minute track from becoming labeled as filler.
The debut single from "My Head Is an Animal" is "Little Talks" and has been making its way around U.S. radio waves since August of last year. Fans of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros will quickly hear similarities to the song "Home" thanks to the call and response between the two singers, the remaining members' chants during the chorus, and most importantly, the trumpets. Of Monsters and Men are well versed in the success of their predecessors, but there is still plenty of imagination in their lyrics and blend of instruments which keeps "My Head Is an Animal" from ever feeling like a copy.
With music that builds such as many of the songs on "My Head Is an Animal" do, anticipation is an element that bands often overlook. In some cases, a band will just add to the number of instruments or increase the volume without building any anticipation of things to come. The music can still be enjoyable, but if the moves are predictable or there is nothing to surprise the listener, it's harder to make the song stand out. On "Dirty Paws" and "Love Love Love," the band uses pauses in the music just long enough to make the listener wonder what happened. It's amazing how such a simple gesture can so greatly affect a song. Following these pauses, everything feels bigger and bolder. Although this technique is more common in a live setting, to hear it on a recording makes the first listen especially exciting.
"My Head Is an Animal" is a fun record. That alone deems it worthy of a listen, but there is far more to it than mostly positive lyrics and sing-along choruses. There is also a certain musical chemistry between the members of the band that finds its way into the recording. The harmonies, not just between Nanna and Ragner but the entire band, are extraordinary. Every voice, both vocal and instrumental is given its chance to shine and when they're needed, reverb and delay effects never grow to a point of distraction. Like Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More," "My Head Is an Animal" introduces a band experienced beyond their years. To release a record like this at any point in a musical career is exceptional, but to release it as a debut is astounding. There are still plenty of records to look forward to in 2012, but look for "My Head Is an Animal" to make many "best of" lists come December.
Track Suggestion: "Little Talks"