Sound — 5
With Iceland's main claims of music fame being the avant-garde songstress Björk, and the heady downbeat rockers Sigur Rós, it was refreshing to hear a more upbeat and fun music export from the country's own Of Monsters And Men. Originally beginning as a solo music project by singer-songwriter Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, she would expand it into an indie folk ensemble in order to enter, and win, the annual Músíktilraunir music competition in 2010. With that win, the band would sign with the independent Iceland label Record Records to release their debut album, "My Head Is an Animal."
While it was originally a domestic-only release, the band's debut single off the album, "Little Talks," would be a breakthrough moment for Of Monsters And Men, shooting them into the Top 40 charts all across the world - with plenty of people likely mistaking Hilmarsdottir's voice for that of English pop star Ellie Goulding. Regardless, this skyrocketing popularity would lead to Universal Republic Records re-releasing the band's debut album globally, which would further establish Of Monsters And Men as new indie darlings in America, leading to them performing at Coachella and Bonnaroo in 2013.
Though it was their jovial sound that brought so much success for Of Monsters And Men, the band swear off that demeanor in their follow-up album, "Beneath the Skin." Primarily, if not exclusively, the band focus their songwriting on ethereal, slow-burning sections that accentuate the crests of full-powered arrangements in the choruses and bridges ("Wolves Without Teeth" and "Slow Life" are key examples), and though they also use this dynamic to juxtapose the melodic divide between downtrodden and uplifting (heard in the morose verses that bloom into rousing choruses in "Crystals" and "Black Water"), the album is well-rooted in sounding moody and gloomy - even the only up-front folk melody found in the closing "We Sink" bears a sullen progression.
However, the grey-skied demeanor that spans from front to back makes "Beneath the Skin" very one-dimensional, only becoming more of a slog the further it progresses (see the fragile and uneventful "Organs" and "I of the Storm," and the tedious crescendo that ends "Thousand Eyes"). This monotonous emotion goes hand in hand with a lot of compositional repetition - like the soft acoustic guitar strokes used liberally throughout the album, and the tom drumlines in "Crystals," "Human," and "Hunger" sounding virtually the same - and only a few songs wield at least one defining quality to set them from the pack, like the nice bass activity in "Slow Life," the film-score-style drums in "Crystals," or even the 15/4 measurement in the verses of "Empire."
Lyrics — 8
Generally, Hilmarsdottir's lyrics in "Beneath the Skin" are similar to the style heard in "My Head Is an Animal," and though the usage of animal symbolism has been greatly reduced this time around (the only cases being the symbolism of wolves in the tandem tracks "Hunger" and "Wolves Without Teeth"), her lyrics are still deeply rooted in natural imagery to communicate her messages - most importantly, water and weather are used to draw out a linear progression of relational emotion, understanding, and healing. As the disharmony between the two characters in "Hunger" has Hilmarsdottir and co-vocalist Ragnar Þórhallsson singing "I'm drowning" together in a foreshadowing sense, they both outline their ideal views towards their relationship in "Empire," with the lines, "Heavy stones fear no weather / And from the rain / Comes a river running wild that will create / An empire for you," further foreshadowing things.
Things get rougher between the two characters, where the post-breakup vulnerability of "Organs" ("So I take off my face / Because it reminds me how it all went wrong" leads to "Black Water" articulating fresh vitriol via loneliness with the imagery of being alone in the sea and a brooding forecast ("Swallowed by a vicious vengeful sea / Darker days are raining over me"). After identifying this tumultuous strife as their own doing in "Thousand Eyes" with the simply poignant line "I am the storm," the characters venture into that metaphorical storm to its center in the aptly-named "I of the Storm," learning that the core of this negativity is built of insecurity ("Are you really going to love me when I'm gone / I fear you won't, I fear you don't"). In the ending of "We Sink," the two find resolution by destroying their ill will towards one another ("We bite our tongue / We set the fire / And we let it burn") and amicably part ways, with the line "As we sink into the open sea" calling back to both the drowning foreshadow in "Hunger" and the lonesome symbolism of the sea in "Black Water."
Overall Impression — 5
With all things considered, "Beneath the Skin" is very much an attempt for Of Monsters And Men to show off a more melancholy side to them to curveball the expectations of following up their peppy and festive debut album. But as admirable as it is for Of Monsters And Men to restrain themselves from making any kind of "Little Talks, Pt. II" as a simple and shameless effort to ride their own trend, "Beneath the Skin" suffers from a great deal of homogeneity. As determined as the album is to bear a dreary disposition, it oversaturates that emotion, making "Beneath the Skin" a dull listen.