Or – “Jónsi dreams of Penthouses and kidney-shaped swimming pools in Monaco”
OR! – “How Sigur Rós stopping trying to be so left field and learned to enjoy the wonders of stadium rock”
It’s been a fair few weeks ago since I weirdly managed to persuade myself to purchase ‘Kveikur’, the latest album from Sigur Rós. And I found myself scribbling some notes/thoughts on the album on the back of a utility bill, thinking that I might even write a review on it in some form…
However, as a Twitter friend quite rightly pointed out: “Does it never feel pointless to write something about albums that already get tons of reviews?” And you know what? She’s right. Dead energy and all that. There are already quite a few reviews out there that pretty much chime with what I would have already said. Despite Grapevine exclaiming that there has been LOTS of critical acclaim for ‘Kveikur’ (and there have been a few), reviews from the likes of The Quietus, FACT, and even professional hipster Atli Bollason (In the Grapevine no less!), have been far more measured in their appraisal of the album. Those being:
1) It’s probably their best/best sounding album since ‘Takk.’ Likely because of the absence of Kjarri, the other three guys had to pick up that slack sonically speaking. Everything sounds much brighter in production, with the instruments seeming turned up a notch or two in the mix. The bass for instance, has that slightly distorted, crunchy feel when it’s played. And you can really hear it in the drums/rhythm section. After spending the best part of ‘Valtari’ with his feet up, a copy of DV and a mug of coffee, Orri has been pressed into double shift action. He murders those floors toms, straight from the off on “Brennisteinn” and he pretty much blasts his way through this album. Good to have him back.
Funny there’s all this talk about SR going “Dark” and stuff, with the likes of Kitty Empire saying they’ve gone black metal (LOL), or David Fricke saying that they’ve gone metal. Do these people who write for mainstream media about music, ever listen to any contemporary music at all? Atli Bollason correctly points out the Ben Frost link, but there’s also the likes of The Haxan Cloak, These New Puritans and other types of stuff in there. OK, I will be a bit kind to David Fricke, as the opening 45 seconds of “Brennsteinn” have that heavy chug that you’d expect from some kind of post-hardcore/metal band. It vibes of Cult Of Luna/Isis/et al, until Jónsi’s vocals come into it. Going back to the point about all three guys picking up the slack from Kjarri—remember that these guys in their early days were informed in their influences by shoegaze/grunge rock and a fair bit of metal (Thanks HSM!). Perhaps they’re just trying to link back into that time a little before Kjarri arrived, with the idea of simply getting together with Orri banging his sticks going “1-2-3-4!!” And that leads to…
2) There’s not an ounce of subtlety on this record. None at all. I listened back to ‘( )’ a couple of days ago and I realised that in terms of structure/chords/melodies, many Sigur Rós songs are actually very simple in their set up. A decent musician could get the song in a minute or so. What makes them special is the sense of atmosphere they’ve squeezed out of such basic structures, creating an organic sense of build and release. “Svefn-g-englar,” Ný batterí, “Samskeyti,” “Popplagið,” and many more tracks—even “Glósóli,” and “Sæglópur” from ‘Takk’—were drawn out and allowed to build in their own good time. Probably why there are so many links to Icelandic nature in the way that nothing was rushed or forced. ‘( )’ is very much a long single track that continuously breathes in and out in its peaks and troughs.
Not so with ‘Kveikur.’ Every track is pretty much fuzzzzzzZZZZZ-woooooOOOOO-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-SCREEEEECH- MeeeeEEEWWWW-WooooOOOOooooOOOO-BANG-CRASH-WALLOP!!!! OK, I’m being a little dramatic here, but apart from “Yfirborð,” intros that would have easily taken a couple of minutes to ease into are way shorter and more direct. And when they do kick in, it’s more like flicking a light switch than putting on a dimmer. There’s no middle ground or build up involved. In many ways, they’re simply serving up big meaty slabs of whalemeat rock. “Var,” the final track is probably the only thing that reminds you of their “classic” sound.
3) With that in mind, ‘Kveikur’ eventually feels a little like a trade-off/compromise between a bigger, more accessible sound, and the flattening of the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies that made SR very much different to a lot of post-rock bands. Good overall, in some places excellent, but not really epoch defining.
Perhaps in a slightly subconscious (As in they haven’t sat in front of a whiteboard and planned it out) way, they’re making a move artistically towards the centre, towards the arena/festival rock sphere. This whole easier to digest sound has been coming for a while building little by little, since ‘Takk,’ and especially since Jónsi’s solo album, ‘Go.’ Cue putting on a Dan Ackroyd voice circa ‘Trading Places’: “My GOD, Sigur Rós are trying to corner the arena rock market!”
And why not? I’ve never expected any huge cultural rewards from music catering to a wide demographic base before, but maaaan are things truly moribund at the moment. You’ve got Apollonian bedwetters like Coldplay and The National (funny when you’ve got two of the biggest rock bands in the world, and they don’t even rock that much), then there’s the freeze-dried Dionysian merchants (Kings Of Leon, Biffy Clyro, The Black Keys), those that did rock the boat but are now spinning out into the realms of comfortable irrelevance (Radiohead), or those who are FIRMLY up their own arses (Muse, Arcade Fire). The fact that Of Monsters & Men are fast facilitating a new orthodoxy of Icelandic music here means now is pretty much as good a time as any for them to make a stamp for their own patch in that centre. Also, we need to remind ourselves that they are getting on a bit as a band, (twenty years now!), so perhaps they’re feeling that restlessness to make their mark with a new audience.
I mean, take the following two videos. The first is for “Glósóli,” from ‘Takk.’ Lots of ‘Heima’-era cutesy-ness albeit with the prerequisite dark undercurrent.
Wasn’t that sweet? Now take this video for “Brennsteinn.” With its semi naked tribesmen, dust, dirt, and hints of chariots of the gods, It’s pretty much saying “Hey Muse! You think you can do Earth hewn galactic rock’? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!”
If I were you, I’d put a fair bit of money of SR taking a headline slot at Glastonbury in the next year or two. You heard it here first!
POST MEANDERING NOTE:
Is it me, of have SR being slyly trolling us all to hell in the last 18 months? I mean, there was the whole “Kjarri-gate” affair. First they denied that he was leaving, forcing retractions from local writers (“Hey Dr. Gunni you better take down that blog exclusive, or we’ll send some elves around to break your legs!”). Then he was still a member of the band but wasn’t touring (“Touring is never good for creativity.” Pull the other one! Who does he think he is—Brian Wilson??), before finally they admit in the end (and a long way down the line) that yes, he wasn’t a member of the band anymore. Not at all long-winded or beating round the bush, eh? It’s almost as if they were trying to get out of some kind of record company contractual obligation or something.
Oh, and then there was ‘Valtari,’ in which they tried to convince us that it wasn’t an album of old ambient sweepings from the studio floor, massaged by the hand of Alex Somers. Again it was almost as if they were merely fulfilling some kind of contractual obligation, before going to a new label (allegedly!) We all ended up tying ourselves in knots trying to convince ourselves that it was an album of big importance, with its “brave” sounds and “new direction,” ignoring the fact that they fell for into the worst rock clichés imaginable, such as using a boy’s choir to instil a form of angelic ethereal ambience to the music. I ended up writing an awful review (thankfully unpublished) where I painfully grasped at some form of insight, where in reality I just wanted to say: “Meh. It’s okaaay, but there’s much better out there.” Even Óli Palli was still out there at the end of the year, saying it was the best album of 2012. I even thought that they’re had reached the end of the road before they blew back into gear at last year’s Airwaves (note, only two tracks on that entire set came from ‘Valtari’). It almost feels now as if it’s been airbrushed form the band’s collective memory. “What’s a Valtari?” Ii think they say now in interviews.
And that Boiler Room set!!! Playing shitty trap tunes through an iPad!! ROFLcopter! A perfectly planned car crash if ever there was one, utilising the fact that Icelanders are professional party people and can act kerrazy at the crop of a hat. It’s not online yet, but they’ve actually uploaded the mix to FACT magazine. Have a listen for a good laugh! As one comment It reminded me a bit of the times Björk would turn up to Bakkus with an iPod and would insist DJ’ing, only for her to play tracks such as that fucking awful Enya Vs Prodigy mashup song!
Haters gonna hate, etc, etc….
A version of this article originally appeared on Bob Cluness’ crazy blog, THE REYKJAVIK SEX FARM. Go read it here if you’d prefer being in a WordPress environment. Also, read his other posts. Some of them are quite good!