There’s no lack of high drama—both lyrically and musically—on Beneath the Skin, the sweeping sophomore album from Icelandic breakout act Of Monsters and Men.
On the sonic side of things, the Keflavík-based six-piece shows that it’s officially mastered the art of the big payoff. Marvel at the waves of Black Sea guitar and shimmering organ that build to a massive climax in “Slow Life”.
Where the lyrics are concerned, the words of chief songwriters Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson reinforce the perception that Iceland isn’t exactly the most fun-loving place on earth. To consider lyrics like “Darker days are raining over me” is to conclude the two are happiest when embracing blackness.
“You get those moments, both at home and on the road, when you don’t feel the best,” Þórhallsson explains, reached in his hotel during a Montreal tour stop. “You tend to want to write about those times because you really remember them.”
That life is anything but golden for Of Monsters and Men will no doubt shock the band’s fans, the quintet having quickly become the biggest Icelandic musical export this side of Björk and Sigur Rós.
Success came fast and furious after the release of a 2011 EP titled Into the Woods, with unplugged YouTube videos shot by Seattle’s KEXP radio helping break the band beyond the borders of Iceland.
That initial exposure led to Of Monsters and Men selling out rooms—including Vancouver’s Venue—on its first major North American tour, despite the fact the group had yet to release a full-length.
When the 2012 debut, My Head Is an Animal, finally hit finer record stores, Of Monsters and Men received a whole new round of raves for its enchanting blending of ethereal folk and soaring chamber pop. Evidently unaware that there’s no point fixing what isn’t broken, the band toughened up for Beneath the Skin. The warm-blanket harmonies that typified My Head Is an Animal once again flood songs like “Wolves Without Teeth”, but the highs are higher this time and the lows lower. So while “Human” is made for contemplative storm-watching on the black sands of Kirkjuból Beach, “Thousand Eyes” cranks up a Stonehenge-sized tower of Marshalls.
“There were things that we tried to change up,” Þórhallsson says. “When you do that, it usually doesn’t feel right in the beginning, but then it opens up things for something else to happen. Like with the horns—we really tried to use them differently. They were mostly for lead melodies on the last album, but not on this record.”
For an illustration of that, consult “Hunger”, which starts out all death-rattle acoustic guitars and hard-thump drums, and parts the skies with a heaven-sent wall of horns, or “Black Water”, which builds from a golden-sunset pop number to a blaring-brass stunner.
The way Þórhallsson sees things, there’s nothing strange about Beneath the Skin being as uplifting musically as it is dark lyrically, as typified by “Slow Life” lines like “I am a killer/You’ll get lost and buried deep if you swim with me.”
“When you’ve got five people, some people bring the melancholy, and some people bring the happiness,” he offers. “In the end, that mixture is what you hear and what you get.”
Of Monsters and Men plays the Squamish Valley Music Festival’s Stawamus Stage on Saturday (August 8).