Beneath the Skin (Of Monsters and Men)

Of_Monsters_and_Men_-_Beneath_the_Skin_-ISL-Beneath the Skin
Of Monsters and Men (2015)
Republic Records

If there’s a common thread between most of the recent music that’s made its way to the world from Iceland, The Land of Fire and Ice (think The Sugarcubes, Sigur Ros and of course Bjork), it’s that it hits you on an emotive level before anything else. There’s a distinctive sound, instrumentally and vocally, that sets it apart. It tends to stay with you long after you’re done listening to it.

After a more than a few listens to “Beneath The Skin,” the new release from Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men, I find myself still trying to wrap my head around it. I like it, but I can’t quite figure out why. One thing’s for sure – Of Monsters And Men has moved on from any Mumford & Sons comparisons they may have garnered from their 2011 debut “Little Talks.” No more quarter-kick, bouncy horns, joyful shouts of “Hey!” They’re settling more and more into themselves and where they want to take us.

Opening with “Crystal,” immediately you’re aware of the important texture this project seeks to create through the rhythm section. Heavy use of the floor toms and kick, the snare making only occasional appearances in the album. I’m not a drummer, and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I happen to have two sons who are fairly gifted drummers (go figure). They go to the snare to keep rhythm; they gravitate to the toms when they want to make a point. That’s what it feels like Of Monsters And Men is adopting from the get-go.

Heavy melodies, particularly in the choruses. Very catchy; easy to sing, repetitive. They’re communicating something – whether it’s to breathe in, breathe out/let the human in on “Humans” or that they’re running from wolves on “Wolves Without Teeth.” Sometimes repetition in songs comes across as either laziness or a lack of creativity. Here, it serves its purpose, drilling both words and melody into your head where they resurface long after the pause button has been pressed.

Vocally, “Beneath The Skin” doesn’t grab you with sheer power or strive to impress you all that much. That’s not OMAM’s MO. They’re not out in front of the band, separate from the instrumentation, but right in the thick of it all. Voice as instrument, if you will. Along with that, a sweet symmetry between the male and female vocals occupies the same space for most of the album (an exception is a nice octave layering during the chorus of “Empire”). Very little harmonization. The effect of this shared vocal space is rather nifty – one voice possessing multiple textures. It is, in my opinion, one of the band’s strongest components.

To listen to an Of Monsters And Men song is to be aware of the vastness of the sound itself. You do not get the sense that you’re cooped up in some small music venue. No, it’s more like a cathedral – or a landscape, like Iceland itself, comprised of bombastic things like volcanoes, geysers, glaciers and green fields.

It’s hard to pin down any particular theme or message in “Beneath The Skin.” There are some components that surface repeatedly from track to track – nature being the most prevalent. Heavy stones fear no weather, Nanna repeatedly sings on “Empire.” Anchoring this song – and perhaps every song on the album – in the reality that there are some things that, out of their sheer weight and inertia and very presence, ground us in the ebb and flow of life. In the still as well as in the storms. In fact, in perhaps what amounts to “Empire’s” companion song, “I Of The Storm,” co-singer Raggi muses:

I am a stranger, I am an alien inside a structure
Are you really going to love me when I’m gone
With all my thoughts and all my faults

This album is laden with stories of the hard work of redemption. Nothing comes easy.

Perhaps the album’s most emotive moment happens in the middle of “Thousand Eyes” – the sheer inertia of a solid minute build-up of guitars, bass, strings, horns and pounding floor toms. Perfectly timed – any shorter and the effect would be cheapened; any longer and it would’ve been overkill. And then, at just the right moment, the storm calms, the instrumentation subsides like a receding tide, and we are left with this haunting lyric: I am the storm – so wait.

I find I don’t enjoy Of Monsters And Men as much as experience it. I can’t listen passively. I get drawn into the songs sonically and lyrically, and I have the feeling that what they wind up speaking to me could be very different from what they might say to someone else. Which, if you think about it, is not a bad thing for an album to do.

If nothing else, it makes me want to visit The Land of Fire and Ice someday. But only during the warm months.

Steve LindsleyWhen STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.