Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Of Monsters and Men's folk bombast invites you to a magical forest

Icelandic pop/folk outfit Of Monsters and Men have released one of the most unique and unusual albums this year. Many have claimed it's one of 2012's best. There's certainly an argument to be made.

They exude a strong upper northern Euro folk feel, with the inclusion of accordions, trumpets, and loud group chorus backing vocals. The main dynamic, though, is the way the voices of their male and female lead vocalists wrap around and harmonize with one another.

Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir puts on one of the most spirited vocal performances of the year. Listeners will likely be captured by the enthusiasm and sense of glee she brings to each song. But she's no softie, demonstrating a raw ability to belt it out from time to time.

She shares lead vocal duties with Ragnar Þórhallsson, who employs a richly accented Irishy sounding tenor. There's something about the way he sings that makes me want to hang on to every word he says.

There's one other key ingredient to their sound, and this one truly sets them apart: they delve pretty deeply into folk legends from Iceland and around the world. For example, "From Finner" is about a group of people who live in a house on the back of a whale. The album is peppered with little references about animals, monsters, and running through a darkened forest. In short, you have to pay close attention to the lyrics and the themes in each song or you miss a big chunk of what the album is about.

The song everyone knows is "Little Talks," which broke on the airwaves last summer. The horn and trumpet section gives a jubilant party vibe to the track, while Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson paint the inner dialouge in the head of an insane man.

"King and Lionheart" tells the story of a king's servant who faces haunted oceans and mythical beasts, but courageously swears to serve to the end. The song features some of the album's best hooks, while drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson accents the stresses in each chorus with perfectly timed cymbal clashes.

"Six Weeks" is about U.S. frontiersman Hugh Glass getting in a fight with a giant grizzly bear. It sounds like a swooning old time sailor's song, and is bolstered by terrific drum fills. "Sloom" is another standout, which showcases fantastic interplay between Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson. The crisp acoustic guitar makes it sound very folky, while Þórhallsson even shows a bit of an edge:

"So make all your last demands, for I will forsake you,
And I'll meet your eyes for the very first time, for the very last"

Of Monsters and Men showcase similarities to Celtic Thunder by emphasizing a strong vocal display, Arcade Fire with their male/female vocal dynamic, and certain songs, like "Slow and Steady," even show parallels to the quiet majestic approach Lykke Li championed on last year's Wounded Rhymes.

A key component of their appeal is that there's not an overabundance of earthy Icelandic animal folk pop being shoveled into the marketplace. It certainly is refreshing. That said, some hooks don't stand out as much as others. "From Finner," "Love Love Love" and "Yellow Light," for example, tend to just swim around in their nebulous sea of folk and don't make much of a mark.

It leaves the impression of an album that is mildly inconsistent, although it hits in most of the right places. The lyrics are also vague, to the point it's a challenge to pick up on what they're trying to say. For example, I probably would have had no idea "Six Weeks" was about Hugh Glass if the band hadn't come out and said so.

But all that aside. you have to admire their spirit. They seem so passionate and totally caught up in this world they've created about animals and monsters in the woods. Album of the year? Not a solid contender, in my opinion. But if nothing else, it's undoubtedly the Northern European nature folk/pop sailor's song album of the year.

Score: 81/100

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