Of Monsters and Men: Fever Dream review – Living in a land of confusion

The Icelandic band, wrestling with success, try to disrupt things while still playing safe

Fever Dream
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Artist: Of Monsters and Men
Genre: Rock
Label: Republic/Universal

Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men have achieved some notable things in their career so far. Their first two records (My Head Is an Animal, and Beneath the Skin) went multi-platinum, they are the first Icelandic band to get one billion streams on Spotify, and their song Little Talks remains the all-time highest-charting single on the Billboard Top 100 by an Icelandic artist. This led to a two-year cycle of sold out tours, playing Saturday Night Live, and experiences they couldn’t have envisaged when they won Iceland’s national annual battle of the bands, Músiktilraunir, in 2010. So, what now?

Fever Dream is their first record in four years, and is put forward as a response to the chaotic times of this modern world, the title of the album referencing the state they have been in while writing the record. Co-produced by Rich Costey, this record, they suggest, is something of a departure from their previous work, with lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir “really tired” of writing songs on an acoustic guitar.

Rich terrain

Fever dream as a concept – a confused, intense, dream or state brought on by illness – has been historically rich terrain for artists, from Ray Bradbury to Ben Watt. Of Monsters and Men's approach to the concept is to borrow aspects of their first two records, My Head Is an Animal, with its krútt (sweet) sensibility, and Beneath the Skin, with its influence of droning guitars, electronic production and a darker impulse. Fever Dream retains that darkly whimsical electronica and earlier folk connection, and adds in what can only be described as stadium rock, with the results sometimes playful, but often limited and confused.

Interestingly, even though the band has talked about discomfiting themselves, writing more on their laptops, opening up the process and being consistently democratic, there is something very safe at work. The production is pristine, but, as they fold in more references, they have allowed a disruption to take place.


Portal of discovery

Disruption can often provide a portal of discovery, an opportunity for renewal and refined clarity, but Fever Dream is more of an exercise in contentment. This is a record that seeks to convey anxiety, and the often-crippling intensity of the interior world, without actually conveying that anxiety. Waiting for the Snow is a meandering, perfunctory ballad with auto-tuned backing vocals, Ahay is a piano-led, bloodless love song, and Stuck in Gravity is all unmoored ambience. Soothsayer is similarly unmoored, building on 80s synth influences – you hope it will move towards something, but that something never comes.

There are some pleasing elements: the synth flourishes on Wars, with its heavy, driving bassline; Alligator and its ominous, drifting, shapeshifting drums, which frames Hilmarsdóttir’s vocal amid hazy guitars (and brings to mind the Yeah Yeah Yeahs); Under a Dome, with its romantic undercurrent; Róróró with its descriptive lyrics; and Vulture, Vulture, showcasing the most effective part of the band – the combined voices of Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar þórhallsson. In this song about inner conflict, their shared vocals provide the searching and soaring anchor.

Their vocal strengths complement each other, and drive this band, and songs such as Wild Roses, with Hilmarsdóttir’s emotive, clear voice and swaying beats, and Sleepwalker, with þórhallsson taking centre-stage, will undoubtedly unfurl themselves live, to anthemic proportions, to the pleasure of many. And perhaps that is enough, but when has “enough” really been the point?