Of Monsters and Men Find New Freedom and Focus on ‘Fever Dream’
Icelandic indie sensation Of Monsters and Men emerged nearly a decade ago as an outgrowth from a solo project of singer and guitarist Nanna Hilmarsdóttir. Shortly after the outfit’s development into a full band, a fortuitous performance of early single “Little Talks” for a Philadelphia radio station sounded a shot heard worldwide. A debut album, 2011’s “My Head Is an Animal,” was rapidly thrown together, and the group promptly embarked on extensive tours, making a name for themselves on the festival circuit and through pivotal television appearances. The followup, “Beneath the Skin” exploded globally, making the band the first Icelandic act to hit one billion streams on Spotify. The group’s cinematic bent was quickly recognized, landing them places on the soundtracks of “The Hunger Games” and “The Walking Dead,” and even a cameo on an episode of the epochal “Game of Thrones.”
The latest album “Fever Dream” finds the band exploring new directions and solidifying what have come to be their trademark traits. It’s full of sweeping bangers that stand out for their dynamism and rare balance of poise and bombast. For the first time, the members wrote much of their individual contributions separately, and then assembled the bits, leading to a freer juxtaposition of aesthetics and ideas than ever before. Remarkably, this sonic expansion amounts, in all its versatility, to an especially cohesive set of infectious songs.
Lead singer “Alligator” greets the listener by immediately evoking the ubiquitous descriptions of the band as an “Icelandic Arcade Fire.” While such characterization has always been reductive, and becomes more so on the latest album, it hardly ever rang as true as it does mere seconds into the opener. The guitars are raw and propulsive, and Hilmarsdóttir bleats with impassioned abandon. Her fetching, idiosyncratic, bent intonation, upon the chorus lines “I lose control” and then “I take control,” is the type of magic little detail that can itself make a song. The lyrics zero in on the elusive, yet undeniable concept of there being a fine line, if any line at all, between vulnerability and control. Hilmarsdóttir condenses profundity into sharp snippets, and some rampant stop-start riffage at the end, over the massive drums, vaguely recalls the signature sounds of Brooklyn dup Sleigh Bells. A fine example of some top-gear, streamlined, songsmithing, “Alligator” expedites every second of its modest three-minute running time to momentous ends.
Having effectively seized and enthralled the listener, the band promptly take a full one-eighty for the relatively subdued “Ahay.” OMAM is a band that benefits greatly from the dynamic interplay and versatility of its two singers. While Hilmarsdóttir took the spotlight on the opener, fellow singer and guitarist Ragner Þórhallsson now dominates in the mix, at least in the beginning, with the former seeping through, and eventually overpowering, the two voices meshing into an amorphous, textured blend. Assemblage from parts composed in isolation, the approach that characterized much of the album’s creation, seems to have especially shaped this track, judging from the inclusion of such delightfully arbitrary touches as full metal, guitar heroic snippets placed here and there.
“Fever Dream” is an album full of sweeping highs and lows, largely facilitated by the breadth of expression between the two singers. Þórhallsson is grounded, if gauzy, whereas Hilmarsdóttir can swell from softly incisive to galvanizing, as on the piano-driven, ‘80s-informed “Róróró,” an especially trenchant, consummate cut of glossy melodrama. “Waiting For the Snow” further taps into this sensibility, but stretching and spacing out the ends to an effect worlds away from that of the frenetic opener. It’s perhaps Hilmarsdóttir’s finest moment, a thoroughly vivid and immersive track, with sparse but layered bits of haunting, manipulated vocals suspended and hovering. “Vulture, Vulture” brings back the beat, with an elegant, minimal groove, and the hushed vocals pronounced with a cool sheen, before erupting into another stadium-ready chorus. It was about time for a bookending, of sorts, after all, and moments like this serve to contextualize the free stylic detours within the greater framework.
“Wild Roses” follows as a reaffirmation, with various proclivities teased earlier now coalescing in a judiciously balanced, measured molding. Hilmarsdóttir sings, “Oh, roses, they don’t mean a thing you don’t understand,” but promptly preempts a near plummet into callous disaffection, reckoning, “But why don’t we full on pretend?” And with this comes the rallying cry of the bona fide free spirit: “In the night, we are wild-eyed, and you got me now.” If anthemic bangers are OMAM’s default, their second most natural conformation is slow numbers that affectionately nod to ‘80s fare in the tradition of, say, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” It’s a sound that the band nails, with voice inflections, synth phrasings, production choices all well-suited for the style, as showcased in such songs as “Stuck In Gravity” and “Sleepwalker.” The former basks in the relaxed expanse of such stylings, while the latter channels their innate frivolity into irresistible, trancelike refrains.
The band delve into dancier territory on “Wars,” with vaguely disco architecture translated to an indie rock aesthetic, its intrinsic pomp freshly reconfigured and realized in an altogether infectious track. Þórhallsson takes over singing duties here, with Hilmarsdóttir joining for chorus harmonies as well as ethereal backing vocals that balance his prominent, sonorous voice. The band has a knack for sliding gracefully between dark and bright aesthetics, with nebulous, gossamer crystallizing into rounded pop confection. “Under the Dome” is a prime example, a track in which the restrained emotion and controlled cool of the singers’ voices inhabit an evocative space between glam and gloom. Finally, “Soothsayer” circles back to the anthemic stylings of the opening number, dishing out all the recognizable sonic signifiers — resounding, crashing drums, open belting, snappy, triumphant guitar gestures, and grand, unifying choruses. Midway there’s a lull that nods to EDM dynamics, but ushers the full band back in at the cue of the “drop,’ and builds to a climax that leaves the blood rushing.
Of Monsters and Men’s early music was rooted in folk sensibilities, and the band’s output over the years has gradually veered away from overt folk sounds, while still subtly retaining the general aura of such designations. Among the qualities that commanded attention and drew critical acclaim from the onset are the group’s powerful immediacy and ability and effortlessly mobilize listeners with sweeping numbers that sink in upon the first listen, and stay with you. “Fever Dream” takes this to the next level, and is easily the band’s most fully realized work to date. While certain songs, like the irresistible “Alligator,” scream out from the lot, every cut on the album could effectively be a single. The record dips freely into playful ‘80s indulgence and emotionally-charged balladry, and always returns triumphantly to resonant, sweeping singalongs.
“Fever Dream” is available July 26 on Apple Music.