Sigur Ros – Kveikur
by Nick Hugon (International Affairs), published June 24th 2013
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
A little more than one year ago, Sigur Rós ended a four-year hiatus with the release of Valtari, an album that was met with more relief than praise by the Reykjavik band’s worldwide fanbase. The 2008-2012 break featured all the worrying signs of a band that was dying–the scrapping of an entire album, a second band documentary and two solo releases by lead vocalist Jónsi Birgisson (including the soundtrack to We Bought A Zoo). By the time the band eventually released Valtari in May of 2012, the assurance that Sigur Rós still had a pulse was good enough for most people, and the soothing but forgettable album was largely forgiven.
The confirmation of Kveikur’s existence in early November of 2012 was a surprising indication of a return to the band’s early-career prolificacy. Even more surprising was the palpable excitement expressed by the band that seemed to suggest that even they were underwhelmed with Valtari, with the band’s own emails calling the album “largely-untourable.” A later email excitedly buzzed that people who had heard Kveikur were calling it the best Sigur Rós album since 2006’s Takk…, and that the band’s new, “aggressive” music was thoroughly exhilarating.
The band’s categorization of their new music as “aggressive” was rightfully met with anticipation. Sigur Rós has made a career through transmitting sentiments of nostalgia, remorse or celebration, but they’ve never really dealt with darker emotions. With a massive heritage of Scandinavian metal to draw on to supplement an inimitable and effortlessly addictive sound, an angry Sigur Rós is a recipe for some of the most frightening, impactful and altogether glorious music a lot of people will have ever experienced.
That expectation is mostly fulfilled on Kveikur; where Sigur Rós executes their new sound, the result is colossal. Opening track “Brennisteinn” pulses with nightmarish, grinding instrumentals that transform Birgisson’s cooing falsetto into an unsettling, otherworldly sneer. By the end of the song, soft, swelling horns ground Sigur Rós right where they need to be–immersed in the terror they have committed to creating while adhering the instrumental standards they’ve relied on in the past to craft beautiful moments alongside potent emotional cues. On follow-up “Hrafntinna,” the mood deescalates palpably as the band returns to more familiar instrumental territory, but epic melodies mark the track as decidedly in line with Kveikur’s promised tone.
Then, things take a turn for the worse. Second single “Isjaki” is probably the most straightforward pop song in Sigur Rós’ catalog, and its dancey, bubblegum chorus is conspicuously out of place even among the band’s more uplifting songs. “Yfirbord” approaches a return to form with some clever vocal distortion darkly echoing Birgisson through the song, but by the end of “Stormur,” Kveikur’s fifth track, you could be forgiven for wondering what happened to all the promised aggression.
Right on time, Kveikur’s title track ushers back heaving instrumentals and some of the band’s most prominent percussion to date. Birgisson’s voice is transformed like we’ve never heard it before until the soaring chorus that again finds Sigur Rós expertly balanced between their traditional style and their new, terrifying sound.
But from “Kveikur” to the end of the album, the Icelanders take a step back again. “Rafstraumur” attempts to reignite but comes off more celebratory than desperate, and “Bláprádur,” though its instrumental pulses are effective, isn’t memorable when held against Sigur Rós’ sky-high standards.
The fact that Kveikur’s two longest tracks are also its first two tracks somewhat makes the album fly by; 10-minute marathons like Takk’s “Milano” or Ágætis Byrjun’s “Viđrar Vel Til Loftárása” are conspicuously absent. By the end of the record, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been deprived of basking in a final sonic boom.
Though less uniformly constructed than Valtari, Kveikur is still an improvement simply due to the return of “moments.” Sigur Rós have capably demonstrated that they haven’t sunk into a band that makes background music, but more importantly, they’ve shown that they still have good ideas. Kveikur has slightly fewer than we’re used to from this band, but the turn to aggression was decidedly a good one; what better way to follow up a very sleepy album than with one that slams you to the ground.
Recommended Tracks: Brennisteinn, Hrafntinna, Kveikur