Of Monsters and Men launched their career through 2010’s edition of Músíktilraunir – Reykjavik’s annual battle of the bands – but you’d be forgiven if you thought the Icelandic folk rockers simply emerged from the forest one day because of their continued reliance on lyrical themes of animals, the wilderness, and the inherent fierceness associated with both.
Co-vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, in an interview with Rolling Stone, promised that the differences between Of Monsters and Men’s first record, 2011’s My Head Is an Animal, and their sophomore effort, Beneath The Skin, are “black and white – they’re pretty polar opposite.”
Listening to the new record, this does not seem to be the case. The new album sounds like a natural extension of MHIAA and coaxes sounds and lyricism that are a shade darker than the debut LP. Whereas fellow folk compatriots Mumford and Sons committed to sonically “going electric” on Wilder Mind, Beneath the Skin dips its toe in a more electric sound, but still relies on acoustic instrumentation as its foundation.
It’s worth noting that even the minor flourishes – like the droning guitars that are pushed on tracks like “Human” or “Empire” – aren’t wholly new; hear them buzz in the background of MHIAA’s “Slow and Steady”. Likewise, Beneath The Skin revisits some locales, characters, and feelings established in MHIAA. There’s a dark, ominous sea (MHIAA’s “King and Lionheart” and Beneath The Skin’s “Black Water”). There’s talk of a couple ruling (also MHIAA’s “King and Lionheart” and Beneath The Skin’s “Empire”).
What’s curious is that Hilmarsdóttir characterized this LP as “like an open book” when many of its songs are veiled in dense similes. On “Human”, Hilmarsdóttir and co-vocalist Ragnar Þórhallsson harmonize over a series of sprawling, nonsensical lines: “Cage me like an animal/ A crown with gems and gold/ Eat me like a cannibal/ Chase the neon throne/ Breathe in, breathe out/ Let the human in.” The record’s use of nature in figurative language works best when focused on a real-world equivalent. For instance, on “Black Water”, Hilmarsdóttir effectively compares a dark ocean that threatens to swallow her whole to the feelings of loss of identity.
The band manages to deliver an intense moment of clarity on the slow-tempo “Organs”, where Hilmarsdóttir mournfully sings: “I tape up my face ’cause it reminds me of how it all went wrong/ And I pull out my tongue ’cause it reminds me how it all went wrong.” This is, however, the exception and not the norm. It feels like Of Monsters and Men could have achieved a more resonant record by building up these personal moments rather than the whimsical world their songs inhabit.
Another highlight surfaces during “Thousand Eyes”, when Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson let the band’s instrumentation take center stage. A menacing, guitar riff keeps pace with an urgent drumbeat, as swelling strings enter the thundery soundscape. This tempestuous moment is significant for its lyrical minimalism, when the band doesn’t have to beat you over the head by singing how there’s a hungry cannibal or wolf nipping at your heels. At the very end, Hilmarsdóttir’s vocals re-enter, stripped down and raw, as she gently croons, “I am the storm.”
Your enjoyment of Of Monsters and Men’s new album may largely hinge on whether you hear their animalistic motifs as gimmicky or as a legitimate narrative vehicle. Regardless, the band has turned in a safe record that doesn’t stray too far from their last offering.
Essential Tracks: “Thousand Eyes”, “Organs”, and “Black Water”