“Compared by critics to Arcade Fire, they veer more towards the emulation of Mumford & Sons on this assured debut…”
Of Monsters and Men | My Head In An Animal
For all the things that Iceland is associated with – like volcanoes, Top Gear and that awful Journey to the Centre of the Earth movie – music isn’t really one of them. Aside from Sigur Rós – the BBC’s answer to an apparent branding crisis – the Atlantic island hasn’t turned out a great deal of artists that have been noticed by the Western media. That is, until a six-piece folk band suddenly won an annual Battle of the Bands competition on their native island. Since then, there has been a great deal of excitement surrounding the rise and rise of Of Monsters and Men.
The band have been incessantly compared by critics to the Canadian artists Arcade Fire, but it seems more logical to put forward that, actually, they veer more towards the emulation of London’s Mumford and Sons. True, Of Monsters and Men is fronted by a female singer, Nanna, but to draw this as the source of comparison is inaccurate; Nanna’s voice is considerably different from that of Régine Chassagne from Arcade Fire, despite it being in a feminine range.
The source of this largely unfounded comparison is likely to be ‘Little Talks’ – a single that sits as track seven on the album – which features a grandiose choral line of trumpets, along with a jolly marching beat, and a ‘join in with us’ chant from male vocalist Raggi, and the other members of the group. It certainly does ring true of Arcade Fire, but this is the only track on the album that could be remotely considered plagiarist.
The album itself opens by delivering one of its best tracks, ‘Dirty Paws’, a cautiously optimistic musical adventure, building nicely, and presenting the first use of what appears to be a signature chant, which creeps into the rest of the album like a subtle motif. The chorus is a pastiche to Icelandic musical superhero Sigur Rós, presenting a chord line and a declarative ‘La la la’ that makes the heart swell.
It’s a great start that butters us up for what’s to come. The album continues in strength for a few more tracks, including the fantastical and cheery ‘King and Lionheart’, which shows us Raggi’s gift at shadowing Nanna’s lead vocals with a soft, lower octave. Each song appears to tell a different story, every one of them appropriately named, especially ‘Slow and Steady’, which, indeed, slows us right down to a stripped-down drum beat, dynamically shifting us into a much gentler part of the album.
OMAM also manage to express a more melancholic edge to their music in the later tracks of the album, such as ‘Your Bones’, an aggressive requiem for a belief lost long ago. Again, the band employ what are slowly becoming a staple of theirs; that recognisable chant, resounding a little darker this time.
The problems start to arise in the similar thematic substance that runs throughout. The unique integration of fantasy and myth into both the lyrics and the ambience of each song is a really nice touch, but eventually it becomes tiresome, as a lot of ideas that previously stood out as being surprising and original get recycled, losing meaning with each reproduction.
The band are technically proficient, with a clear understanding of their genre, but it is hard not to feel the forced nature of the vocal tones in the recordings, especially of female vocalist Nanna. Her voice is angelic in many ways, but altogether, it is far too airy to be natural, and feels like a simulation of the voice she wishes she has. The accentuation of the lyrics is hard to ignore, with the singers sounding almost as artificial as the likes of Tom DeLonge of Blink-182. It is fair to assume that this is due to the fact that they are Icelandic, but it still detracts from the impact the music could have. With the raw emotional tone of someone like Bon Iver, or even Dave Grohl, this could be much more visceral stuff.
Realistically though, the fact that one must resort to opinionated nit-picking to find any real issues with the album just shows that it is a more-than-decent offering to the folk scene. While not being quite as influential as their main rivals Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons, OMAM’S first album feels very polished, and actually sounds more like a third or fourth production as opposed to a debut. Keep on the look-out for their second release – it could be what moves them from being great into being phenomenal.