The population of Iceland currently stands at just under 330,000. Just to put this figure in perspective, that’s about the same as the population of Wakefield. With apologies to The Cribs and errr… Jane McDonald, it is probably not unreasonable to suggest that the respective contributions of the two prove that, per head, Iceland is the most successful musical nation on the planet.
Björk kicked it all off back in the late 1980s with The Sugarcubes and her subsequent solo career, together with the uniquely elemental, quasi-classical post-rock of Sigur Rós and the innovative work of lesser lights such as Múm and Gus Gus have helped establish Iceland as major players on the independent music scene. But until recently, the pint-sized Nordic powerhouse lacked a commercially successful, conventional guitar band equipped to crossover into the living rooms of those less adventurous listeners around the world, for whom albums recorded with Tuvan throat singers are a bridge too far. When their 2011 debut album My Head Is An Animal reached the Top 10 of the album charts in both UK and the US, Of Monsters And Men made a compelling case to suggest they could be that band.
Three years on and the six piece are back with Beneath The Skin; a slightly misleading title, as it’s evident from the first minute of opener Crystals that Of Monsters And Men are simply carrying on with more of the same familiar fare that helped them break through beyond their homeland. They are, in essence, an Icelandic Mumford And Sons, with all the associated pros and cons one would therefore expect.
My Head Is An Animal’s big tunes were propelled into flight by the dovetailing harmonies of male and female vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, whose soaring voices beefed up the group’s folky melodies into lighter-waving anthems tailor made for festival main stages across the globe. On Crystals, we get just a brief flurry of tub thumping drums before Hilmarsdóttir’s impassioned yelp descends upon us. It’s not long before the cymbals are crashing and the guitar riffs clanging on a chorus that makes many football terrace chants seem subtle in comparison.
Second track Hunger is mercifully a little more subdued, although the incessant, faux-tribal drum pounding continues unabated. It also bears one of several song titles on Beneath The Skin that read like Game Of Thrones episodes in waiting – Wolves Without Teeth, Empire, Black Water, I Of The Storm. This propensity also translates into lyrical themes heavy on animal and fantasy imagery and frequently nonsensical – with the sequence “Cage me like an animal/ A crown with gems and gold/ Eat me like a cannibal/ Chase the neon throne” being a particularly risible example.
Of Monsters And Men are a different proposition altogether when they ditch the bombast, turn down the volume and allow their music space to breathe. This is ably demonstrated on the uncharacteristically lovely Organs, featuring just piano, acoustic guitar and a barely perceptible cello as an understated backdrop to Hilmarsdóttir, who in turn proves she can coo softly as well as caterwaul.
It’s a brief respite however, with more of the same old tried and trusted formula holding sway for most of the rest of the record, although the slow building guitar drone and discordant strings on Thousand Eyes does – perhaps unwittingly – bring to mind the work of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Overall though, this is an unremarkable collection by a band apparently largely content to just churn out the same simple crowd pleasing template, one that an easily pleased existing fan base will gratefully lap up. There’s little going on beneath the skin here and it’s an unfortunate if sadly inevitable fact that other significantly more talented musicians from Iceland will never attain Of Monsters And Men’s levels of popularity.