When Icelandic indie-pop band Of Monsters and Men released its first album, My Head is an Animal, in 2012, the band gained critical acclaim in the U.S. But with the release of its second album, Beneath the Skin, on Tuesday, the band might have fans wondering if its breakout success was a fluke.
On the album opener “Crystals” the band charts familiar territory — the stripped-down vocal harmonies counteract vivid lyrics, describing dream-like places. Although lead singer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir said in a Rolling Stone interview that the band’s two albums were “polar opposite,” “Crystals” proves otherwise.
Throughout much of the album, Of Monsters and Men struggles to show they’re an established band. They continually rely on the formulas that made them famous rather than trying to break new ground. Steady drum beats become insistent and atmospheric sounds become tiresome.
With its first album, Of Monsters and Men’s production was minimalistic, lending a certain charm to the band’s folk sound. On Beneath the Skin, the band strived more complexity, adding electronic layers to their familiar harmonies. The attempt falls short, leaving the band without much substance. It isn’t until the album’s eighth track, “Organs,” that Of Monsters and Men strips down its layers and succeeds in what they set out to do.
“Organs” is the album’s saving grace. Finally the band begins to explore what it means to reach “beneath the skin.” In the introspective ballad, the band members leave their surreal lyrics behind, crafting mature metaphors to describe emotions of pain, loss and confusion. While it was uncharacteristic of the band, the risk pays off. Hilmarsdottir’s vocals are raw, complemented by delicate instrumentation, effortlessly evoking emotion in the band's listeners.
“Black Water” follows “Organs” example by starting off unassumingly and eventually breaking into a powerful song about losing yourself. The album continues and emotions swell through the end as the band cuts through the clutter that made up much of the first half.
Of Monsters and Men has fallen into the trap many bands don’t escape after a successful first album — the idea that bigger is always better. The electronic sounds and layered instruments seem superfluous, especially when compared to the album’s simple yet honest ballads.
In an attempt keep its momentum, the band seems to have forgotten who they are. The album comes across as two separate efforts, in which the second half overpowers the first.
With Beneath the Skin, Of Monsters and Men plays it safe, only experimenting occasionally with its sounds and lyrics. The mediocre album will leave you wishing the band had taken bigger, less predictable risks.
Album: Beneath the Skin
Genre: Indie Pop