"We just kind of ... won," recalls co-singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir. "We weren't expecting it at all."
The band wasn't expecting anything that followed either. After making waves in Iceland with the subsequent release of My Head Is An Animal, the band earned enough support for an international release in 2012. None of them have seen much of their native Iceland since — Hilmarsdóttir's original solo project is giving way to the accidental band she brought together in 2010.
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Of Monsters And Men, which formed in 2009, was never meant to be a band. Originally, Hilmarsdóttir was hoping to recruit more members to round out her sound. The first three additions included Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson (co-lead vocals, guitar), Brynjar Leifsson (guitar), and Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson (drums), and they immediately changed the dynamic of the band by giving the project two lead vocalists and an arsenal of instruments that include the melodica, glockenspiel, French horn, and trumpet.
Shortly after, Kristján Páll Kristjánsson (bass) and Árni Guðjónsson (keys) filled out the band's roster (although Guðjónsson has since dropped out), giving Of Monsters And Men diverse musical depth. Their signature song, Little Talks, remains their best example.
Sung as a duet with Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson, Little Talks doesn't seem like it would be anything special on the front end with its anthem-sized big band open and chants. But as soon Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson break into the alternating verse of loneliness and regret after heartbreak, Little Talks becomes as addictive as it is meaningful. Even stripped back and played in a cramped little room, it has weight.
Little Talks is certainly accomplished, but it's the balance of the thirteen tracks that locks in Of Monsters And Men as a band to watch. Opening the release is Dirty Paws, a semi-surreal metaphorical masterpiece that captures the loss of innocence and how every imbalance is eventually corrected.
The musical arrangement is as haunting as the lyrics, with a soft acoustic opening that erupts into something more forceful. Like many of the songs written by Of Monsters And Men, King And Lionheart also starts with a hushed open before it is interrupted by an invasion, transforming what could have been a lullaby into a larger-than-life, even-tempoed folk epic.
It's in these contrasts that Of Monsters And Men shines, much like Iceland. As Hilmarsdóttir explains it, Iceland can be a "very isolated country and that translates into music." But in many ways, it's really the contrast of this isolation and the vastness of the sea around it that stands out in most tracks.
When Of Monsters And Men neglect the contrasts, the compositions unravel a bit. If not for its sincerity, for instance, Slow And Steady is almost too much of a slow burn for its own good. Soft and gentle duets, even with a restrained drum fill to give a climax, play better in person than on the album.
Instead, songs like Six Weeks show a real spark with more urgency and amped up guitars. Lakehouse too, with its acoustical moments and orchestral fullness. Both songs are heavily metaphoric, which is another reason this band never comes across as too contrived. It's easy to get lost in vivid lyrics and dual meanings, especially when accompanied by impassioned musicians.
Another track worth a listen is Numb Bears. The thirteenth track makes a better conclusion on the album than Yellow Light, with Hilmarsdóttir's vocals taking on a much more staccato presentation. The track tackles what it is like to reach a destination while everyone stays home and plays it safe. It's lonely and celebratory at once, probably not all that different than the band feels lately.
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Another track to check out off the album is Sinking Man, which was released as a hidden track on the more listenable and long version of Yellow Light. The stripped back track that appeared on the Icelandic album release (at 10:52) proves how the duet-led band can demand attention with even the smallest measure of effort on their part.
My Head Is An Animal by Of Monsters And Men is currently enjoying a resurgence on iTunes after cutting into the best new artist album listing. You can also find My Head Is An Animal on Amazon, even if the album does not include the thirteenth track Numb Bears. The CD at Barnes & Noble is also missing the additional track. For a continuation of their tour that starts in Iceland on Jan. 3 before continuing on to Australia, visit the band on Facebook.