Published July 8, 2013
It’s hard to believe. Yet—Sigur Rós is turning twenty. And age takes its toll: Kjartan Sveinsson, keyboard and all-around player, has left the band, making their new album ‘Kveikur’ their first one recorded as a trio since 1997’s debut ‘Von.’
Press surrounding the release suggests a new beginning, a reconstitution, a rougher and tougher sound; ‘Kveikur’ is being called the “anti-Valtari” and not without reason. Titles like “Dauðalogn (“Dead Calm”), “Varðeldur” (“Bonfire”) and “Ekki múkk” (“Not a Sound”) definitely conjure up quieter and less imposing images than “Brennisteinn” (“Brimstone”), “Stormur” (“Storm”), “Bláþráður” (“By a Thread”) and “Hrafntinna” (“Obsidian”). In “Hrafntinna,” the mood is dark and unsettling (in translation): “The sky is burning / fire and brimstone all over / petrified hearts / getting colder / darkness falling / clouds of gray tower above me / the pitch-black devil / smothers everything.”
During the title track—likely the apex of the album—distorted drums and grinding noise that could just as well have been pulled from Ben Frost’s mixing console whoosh from speaker to speaker. When things get going, Sigur Rós drops the vocals and raises the temperature until things boil over in a titanic clash of sound. Your mind involuntarily wanders towards the eighth and last untitled track of ‘( )’ (“The Pop Song”), the explosive song that Sigur Rós’ live sets have closed with for as long as I can remember seeing them live. Jónsi, of course, is first and foremost himself in his delivery, but there is a new assertiveness to his performance.
But ‘Kveikur’ is only but slightly overcast. Upon listening to the new album, one really realises that Sigur Rós—despite making deities all teary-eyed and hypnotizing whales so they fall in love, if one is to accept some of the reports out there—are primarily a Pop Band. More often than not, these are big, epic songs in the tradition of Chris Martin and Coldplay, songs that make the world weep, now even with running times that suit late-night talk shows. “Stormur” is like pulled from some hospital or high-school drama, and I bet “Ísjaki” will feature in a big budget trailer before long. Hell, “Rafstraumur” could even be a B-side from ‘Viva la Vida.’ Even by the end of lead single “Brennisteinn”—where distant static slowly morphs into an all-enveloping buzz complemented by nasty, greedy, rowdy bass and hundred tonne drums—Sigur Rós is actually grooving so hard that you reach for your pair of dance shoes. It should be mentioned that Orri Páll Dýrason, Sigur Rós’ drummer, is the star of the show; his percussive magic is mixed right up front—where it should be—throughout the album.
Sigur Rós took their first steps towards a more accessible sound on ‘Takk’… and they really push things further in this direction with ‘Kveikur.’ Some fans of ‘Ágætis byrjun’ and ‘( )’ may be fine with this, others will not. Even though ‘Kveikur’ mostly contains music that doesn’t quite seize me in the way Sigur Rós’ earlier material did, I am very happy to hear them move away from the saccharine sentimentality that weighed their three previous albums down. Because, if you’ve ever seen Sigur Rós live, you know that when they feel like rocking out, like rocking hard, like slaying—they do. ‘Kveikur’ serves as a reminder of the rougher side of a band that is perhaps often mislabelled as a tad too soft.