In 2012, just as “Little Talks” was overtaking U.S. airwaves and the soon-to-be platinum My Head Is An Animal peaked at number six on the Billboard 200, five young Icelandic musicians went from winning their homeland’s battle of the bands to being crowned the “next Arcade Fire.”
In that same year, Of Monsters and Men would find themselves touring extensively after an international release of their debut album–one that included afternoon slots at major music festivals like Sasquatch! and Coachella. Three years later, founding member and lead vocalist Nanna Hilmarsdóttir would be back at the former, standing in a light drizzle before a massive crowd at The Gorge Amphitheater, headlining and closing day one in a spectacular display of her band’s transformation from foreign folk singularities to indie-rock forgers.
So it’s unsurprising that three years later, the comparison to Arcade Fire still holds just as strongly as it did then–with Nanna and company now finding themselves in an eerily similar situation to the one that Win Butler and Regine Chassagne’s brainchild found itself in back in 2004, after the release of Funeral. Debuts by both bands boasted a gorgeous relationship between shared male/female vocals that fans quickly fell in love with, as well as arena-ready anthems born out of bold orchestral arrangements and an often overlooked flare for elegant storytelling.
But it also raised the bar egregiously high for both band’s inevitable sophomore efforts–and when Arcade Fire’s finally came in the form of the politically motivated but highly emotive Neon Bible, many highlighted the album’s darkly contemplative composition and unapologetic vocal convictions as reason to be dismissive of it.
When in reality, Neon Bible stands as their most emotionally compromising and bold albums to date–similarities aside–Of Monsters and Men’s follow-up Beneath the Skin is no different. Shedding the infectious folk hooks of their audacious debut, the Icelandic sweethearts have peeled back layer after layer of their baroque bombast, leaving behind only the raw and tender licks of Nanna’s and co-vocalist Ragnar Þórhallsson’s chilling echoes.
The entire album is filled with evocative images of mystic mountain coastlines and stormy oceans, contrasting familiar upbeat, sunshine-folk tracks like “Mountain Sound” and “King and Lionheart,” which are nowhere to be found. Instead, songs like “Crystals” are in their place, trading jubilantly melodic tales of love inspired by the natural world for murky percussion gallops and hard-won battles of self-acceptance.
“But I’m okay with see-through skin/I forgive what is within,” Nanna murmurs in her ethereal intonations–and it is as much an admission of unwavering self-love for the individual as it is for the band as a whole.
Something’s grown into change within Of Monsters and Men. Their virgin sound has now blossomed to include the warm glow of electric guitars, whether it is subtly in the background on”Empire,” or as powerful waves of riffs in “We Sink.” Innate masters of guitar-percussion-guitar progressions, songs like “Human” and “Black Water” rely heavily on the shuddering pulse of bass drums, which thunder forward as the song’s lifeblood and then fade behind the uplifting cascade of Nanna’s/Ragnar’s roaring croons and trumpeting brass.
But the best testament to their growth lies in “Thousand Eyes” and “I of the Storm,” as they transform simple, snare driven melodies and Nanna’s heartbreakingly delicate whispers of self-doubt into the album’s most rousing of choruses and crescendos. “Organs” similarly bears much of its visceral poignancy on the shoulders of a few simple strums, softly hummed strings, and graphic lyricisms that see the 26-year-old tearing her own wearied body apart rather than facing the memory of loss.
As infectiously avant-garde as ever, Beneath the Skin sees the emergence of this nubile band bravely uncompromising and unbending towards the pressures of their international acclamation. Of Monsters and Men have returned to us with their chest split open, bleeding heart in hand, weaving ardent fables of the fears and desires that gush unseen below our surfaces. It’s a rollicking journey–at times they waiver, stumble, and the album’s deep contrasts to the first might leave some fans brittle enough to disregard it.
But after the overwhelming success of their landslide debut, it is in their sophomore attempt that Of Monsters and Men felt compfortable enough in their own skin to create an album that left them naked and vulnerable–the lush magic and gutsy honesty of its fearless anthems leaving you profoundly enraptured, breathless, mystified.
Beneath the Skin is out now via Republic Records.