Beneath the Skin takes an anthemic approach to Of Monsters and Men’s familiar output of modern folk rock. However, the album fizzles out before it has any room to take hold.
For a land known for doom-impending volcanoes, harsh winters, and rotten fish, Iceland sure has a lot to say. I can always tell when an Icelandic artist hits the airwaves. No, it’s not the accent — which, I still can’t quite grasp. It’s not even Icelandic pop’s knack for weirdness, like Bjork’s army of bell wielding children.
Nothing like some bells and ash to kick off the day.
And then there’s the Island’s folk scene. Of Monsters And Men, along with England’s surprise hit, Mumford And Sons, helped bring folk rock back to the mainstream, taking advantage of floor drums, “ooh, ahs,” and other cliches hyped by the industry. Thank God they never reached Fun. extravagance. What separates the outfit, however, is their unique atmosphere. Of Monsters and Men just sounds…different. In a good way, mind you. I don’t know if it’s some subconscious, predisposed knowledge of their culture, but I can feel Iceland in their music. Natural, alien, Icelandic landscapes. And that’s coming from an American keyboard warrior with limited knowledge of the music’s cultural background. My Head Is An Animal emitted that feeling; Beneath the Skin, especially in its early tracks, emits that feeling. I only wish that catharsis continued throughout the LP’s 48 minute running time.
48 minutes. Such a running time leaves little excuse for blandness. So, what happened? Similar to other 2015 folk rock releases, Beneath the Skin suffers from sophomoric identity crisis. The album’s style lies between straightforward, anthemic folk rock and derivative, “haven’t I heard this before?” pop rock. Victims of this identity crisis are, “Hunger,” “Wolves Without Teeth,” “Empire,” pretty much the LP’s entire midsection. After an explosive introduction, the former two tracks never reach beyond their simplicity, while “Empire” grabs pacing by the throat and chokes the life out of it. I’ve never said it once, but I’ll say it now. The middle section of an LP is paramount to its success. By the third song, I didn’t know if I was listening to a folk or pop record. That’s a problem. The line between genres lacks the seamlessness of a band comfortable with their sound. “Wolves Without Teeth,” for example, is a straight forward pop tune, relying heavily on a shallow chorus and modern folk tropes to get its point across.
Sure, Of Monsters and Men always took a listener friendly approach to songwriting. But, whereas “Crystals” and “Human” are atmospheric and easy listening, the album’s midsection feels uninspired, lifeless, almost too safe. Although accessibility isn’t fair criticism for such a pop oriented sound, I can’t help but feel disappointed in Of Monsters and Men’s approach to experimentation. As is common in the dreaded sophomore record, the songwriters have found their comfort zone and dwell within it. This time, more ballads, more acoustic tracks, more general…meh. Again, the natural feeling expressed in My Head Is An Animal is replaced by familiarity, lacking that boundary-stretching, yet listenable folk sensibility I was searching for. .
However, when the album hits, it hits fucking hard. “Human,” I think I already talked about this track, but I’m all about repetition, thrusts the listener through a variety of musical colors, with heart jerking acoustic sections and haunting melodies. This kind of track is why I even listen to this damn outfit. Of Monsters and Men is all about sound height, that climactic explosion of poppy folk sweetness. And, if you know anything about Reviews From the Other Side, we’re all about those goosebump moments. “Thousand Eyes” even throws in a post-rock-esque build. This sudden moment of experimentation, followed by tearjerker, “I Of The Storm,” added some much needed dynamics to the staleness of the album’s midsection. Ragnar þórhallsson — I cheated and used Google. Like hell if I’m going to find that letter. You know which one — stepped up for this album. “Human” utilizes his youthful, but emotional timbre, mixing well with the overarching melody and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir’s delicate croon. The band’s debut seemed unsure of what to do with their male vocalist. However, Ragnar seals his position in Beneath The Skin and develops himself as something more than a sidekick.
As is commonplace in modern studio records, Beneath the Skin opens and ends strongly, but is burdened by uninspired and inconsistent songwriting. No, you won’t find another “Little Talks” track on this LP, if that means anything to you. Those looking for background pop may look no further. Those flipping for the next genre defining folk record better flip on. It’s as simple as that.
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