Everything about Of Monsters And Men’s sophomore album, Beneath The Skin, seems like it is black and white. Quite literally, Australian artist and creative director Leif Podhajsky’s die-cut album artwork juxtaposes dark extra-planetary textures that spell out the Icelandic band’s initials in block letters against a stark, barren surface. And figuratively, too: frontwoman, songwriter and singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir describes Beneath The Skin in those same complementary terms.
Hilmarsdóttir speaks softly from her hotel room in Toronto. She and the rest of the band—singer and guitarist Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson—had arrived in Toronto just three days prior, a week before their North American tour opener. Of Monsters and Men gained international recognition in 2011 with My Head Is An Animal, a harmonious, uplifting take on nu-folk. But whereas the foot-stomping, crowd-rallying anthems of that album represent a colorful joy of a debut, Beneath The Skin mimics its black-and-white aesthetics with its sharp emotional contrasts.
Of Monsters and Men toured behind My Head Is An Animal for around three years. But, says Hilmarsdóttir, “We got back home, and it was very strange in a way. Iceland is the kind of place where it seems like a total opposite of everything else. It felt like everything had changed, but nothing had changed.”
She continues, “When you go out, everything is moving quickly [when] you’re on the road. You’re never stopping to ever just breathe.
“We got back home and suddenly there was all this time…I think maybe the album is colored by that.”
Indeed, Of Monsters and Men shades Beneath The Skin with darker lyrics. Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson alternate singing them in wider, clearer spaces on the record, as guitars and reverberating keyboards woosh and swirl like the frigid Nordic air that prickles and tickles your lungs. Imagery of storms and black waters seem to engulf each other from track to track, but the sparser instrumentation creates vast room for the 11 new songs to breathe.
Hilmarsdóttir struggles when trying to explain the experiences that precipitated Beneath The Skin. She avoids specifics, but notes through her inward-looking quietude that the band challenged itself to be particularly honest in expressing itself. Acknowledging whatever vague situations transpired, she finally settles on the succinct acceptance that “It felt like something that needed to with each other get out.”
But the quintet’s four lyric videos seem to provide some insight into the feelings that shaped Beneath The Skin and those the LP should elicit. In each one, the production team Tjarnargatan filmed a lone actor or actress lip-syncing one of the band’s songs in, of course, black and white. “Crystals,” the first official single, showcases actor Siggi Sigurjóns (who looks remarkably like a bearded Robin Williams) mouthing the chorus, “Cover your crystal eyes / and let your colors bleed and blend with mine,” as the lines on his forehead alternately crease with anguish and elation. Actress Guðrún Bjarnadóttir dances her way through the percussive “Empire” and most recently, Natalie G. Gunnarsdóttir slinks through the yearning ballad “Hunger.”
It’s Atli Freyr Demantur’s performance in the bleak “I Of The Storm,” however, that truly breaks the fourth wall of film and music and whatever Of Monsters and Men is trying to do to get you to where they are. Demantur, a Danish makeup artist and film and fashion freelancer, has known Hilmarsdóttir since they were teenage classmates in Iceland and flew from a photo shoot in Beijing to film the lyric video.
“When Nanna called me and pitched the video idea to me, it instantly grabbed my attention,” he writes from Copenhagen. “When the band sent me the song, I completely fell in love with it.”
Hilmarsdóttir expressed that the band wanted a drag queen for this song, but gave neither Demantur nor the other actor or actresses any direction. The band wanted each individual to visually reflect whatever emotions the songs stirred within him or her.
Demantur recalls, “I listened to the song on repeat on the plane, listening deeply to the lyrics and worked to capture the essence of the song. I think I really understood what Nanna was saying in the song and I also related to it in my own way by thinking about my own insecurities—being away from my fiancé, feeling misunderstood, and being different from the crowd. All those aspects played in building the character.”
The song opens with rolling snare hits reminiscent of a military march. But as the drums cut out and the piano swells, the bare-chested Demantur bares his teeth in the pre-chorus, voicelessly singing, “And it echoes when I breathe / Until all you’ll see is my ghost / Empty vessel, crooked teeth / Wish you could see.” His tattoos—of skulls and hearts and a diamond chest-piece—stand out from the video washed out in bright white. His gauged ears shine light straight through to the background.
And when Demantur mouths Hilmarsdóttir’s words, “I am a stranger /?I am an alien?/ Inside a structure?/ Are you really going to love me when I’m gone?” the sparkles from his dramatic eye shadow glint. He gazes directly into the camera, and the fears and feelings the band so eloquently describes manifest themselves through his physical appearance.
“He is a master,” Hilmarsdóttir gushes about her old friend. “He is just standing there being really real.”
While the videos help guide listeners through Beneath The Skin, its stark shading helps color the experience you’re supposed to have. But still, it still takes time and a certain mindset to fully allow the record to get beneath your skin, to agitate you, and let its gusts chill you to your bones. The contrast—between Of Monsters and Men’s first record and second record, from boisterously loud to pensively quiet—is, in fact, pretty black and white.
“It’s getting back to the quietness and still being rowdy inside. Your head is still thinking millions of things. And everything is quiet,” says Hilmarsdóttir. “There are the quiet parts and there are the crazy intense parts and it’s finding the balance between it.”