Album Review: Sigur Rós – Kveikur

[XL Recordings; 2013]

At this point in their career, any joke that can be made at Sigur Rós’ expense has already been made. And there are a lot of them. But “pretentious new age treacle” is a much harder argument to push for when you’re in the midst of such transportive music. The Icelandic quartet were pure escapism, and it was an essential component of what made them work. After losing keyboardist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson late last year, the band faced an identity crisis. Amidst breakup rumours and criticism that the sound that launched a thousand imitators had run its course, the trio retooled on the fly, and did it with less downtime than they’ve ever allowed themselves.

Now that Kveikur (translated: Candlewick) has been out for more than a month, last year’s muted, borderline somnambulent Valtari almost seems like an epilogue, a capper on what Sigur Rós do so well: be pretty. Granted, Sigur Rós will never be able to sound unrecognizable; try though they may, the rudiments of their sound is too established and too distinctive for them to be able to self-relegate into anonymity. But Kveikur is a little more than a shake-up, it’s a rallying cry that can conjure some goosebumps of its own. The palate here is much more diverse that its predecessor, which at times felt akin to singling out gorgeous flowers in a meadow full of them. Kveikur teeming with those intuitive, “oh, of course!” moments that are so prevalent on their best work.

The song titles here are based on the harshest and rawest that nature has to offer. Opening track and lead single “Brennisteinn” (translation: Brimstone) does more to capture your attention and boil your blood than Valtari did in 54 minutes, with cascading cymbals, fragments of drone music, and smudged-out basslines that fade and then flare up. The instruments play off each other with a sort of discordant agreeability that bands of inferior musical ability would likely fumble with. That, or it’s been so long since drummer Orri Páll Dýrason and bassist Georg Hólm have had something to do that I’ve forgotten what it’s like when Sigur Rós play as an actual band.

While Kveikur is to be lauded for a more than welcome rejigging, there’s enough here to suggest that Sigur Rós could be pushing themselves even more. In particular, “Yfirborð” and “Stormur” – the latter of which really only catches fire in its final minute— result in a strange sort of lull that misappropriates a lot of the album’s cataclysmic momentum. Following this is the title track, which appears to have been deliberately placed behind two of the gentlest, most melodic tracks just for emphasis.

But when Kveikur’s novelty diminishes after a few weeks away from it, the points where Sigur Rós are exploring a middle ground become the most rewarding. “Rafstraumur” opens elegiacally with watery, embryonic vocals from Jónsi Birgisson. From there it ascends to a particularly rigorous rendition of Sigur Rós’ trademark ambient post-rock, garnished with what could be almost be described as a pop hook. The shrillness of the strings on “Isjaki” (Iceberg) is perhaps the most prominent of stutter step on a record full of them. It sounds perfectly placed while also being genuinely unexpected. Kveikur is the band’s noisiest and most muscular record yet. The variety of experience it offers not just from Valtari, but from the band’s entire catalogue, means that it stands among their best. Despite being one person lighter, Sigur Rós have dialed back by beefing up. I can’t think of many other bands so adept at wringing elegance from ugliness.