Sigur Rós – Kveikur: Ice and Brimstone

2013_SigurRos_KveikurArtist: Sigur Rós
Album: Kveikur
Year: 2013
Grade: B+

In Brief: A refreshing and somewhat radical reinvention for Sigur Rós, a band that was in desperate need of change after a tepid comeback last year.

Sigur Rós is back, baby!

I really wish I could have said that at about this time last year. Back then, instead of being stoked for the return of a band I’d been following for nearly a decade, I was left cold and confused by the mostly formless mess that was supposed to be their comeback album, Valtari. On the surface, that might have seemed like an ill-advised complaint to make about a band that had gone from relative obscurity in their native Iceland to seemingly being an influence on every ambient indie rock band and/or nature film soundtrack known to man. These guys built a reputation for themselves by taking their time, and listeners rejoiced in the knowledge that a long, slow, build-up full of icy keyboards, the unsettling moan of a bowed electric guitar, and other strangely looped and backmasked sounds created into the studio, would erupt into a climax of volcanic proportions, or failing that, at least lead us to a quiet, contemplative place that would provide fodder for our sweetest dreams. Valtari took the minimalistic extremes of their sound about as far as they could go (and I would argue, way farther than they ever should have gone), while providing almost none of the dreamy, climax-ey stuff. It pained me to put the band on my year-end “Bottom 10” list after finding so much of interest on even some of their weaker offerings in the past. But I said this at the end of that review:

“I can only take comfort in the fact that, when the band re-emerges three or four years from now with a new record, there’s really no way to subvert Valtari other than to bounce back and do something bigger, gutsier, edgier, or just completely different altogether. Odds of that being a better record are pretty high, don’t you think?”

Well, as it turns out, I was half-right here. I wasn’t right about the timing – Sigur Rós pulled an unexpected “turn and burn”, resulting in their newest album, Kveikur, coming out barely a year after Valtari. But I was right about what the band might do next to confound our expectations, and about the odds of it being a better record. Kveikur is the most aggressive, immediate thing that Sigur Rós has ever done. Here, tense rhythmic grooves are front and center, with the band taking on an almost “doom metal” sort of sound on a few tracks, while sounding so melodic that they might as well be making their version of up-tempo pop music on others. (A few of these tracks wouldn’t have felt out of place on Jónsi‘s solo album Go, except for the fact that there are, as usual for the band, no English lyrics here.) There’s plenty of experimentalism, most of it done via strange percussion sounds, in between, so it’s hardly a conventional pop or rock record. But it is certainly an instantly likeable one, at least for those who felt like I did that Valtari was a massive letdown. One could almost take the existence of these two records at opposite extremes of the band’s sound spectrum as a sign that they did this intentionally, systematically separating out their mellowest and wildest impulses to create a baffling pair of fraternal twin albums. (The band has even described Kveikur as “the anti-Valtari“.) However, I’m not sure of how soon the band decided on this new direction. Their former keyboardist, Kjartan Sveinsson, departed after Valtari, and while keyboards and bells and the like played a prominent role on that album, this one sounds like the result of the band needing to change their M.O. in the wake of his departure. That’s not to say that keyboards and the like aren’t present here – sometimes they ring out with grandiose melodies as part of a huge chorus hook, and there’s even a calming instrumental coda built around a simple piano melody at the end. It’s more like the three men left in the band decided to go bigger rather than smaller out of defiance, seeing the departure of a founding member as an opportunity for risk-taking. Coming from a band that has never been content to put out anything remotely resembling the same record twice, this is certainly a sign that even a skeptical listener like me should think twice before giving up on them, because there will always be something new and different just around the corner.

Now despite the shock to your system that the bone-rattling first notes of Kveikur may deliver, it should be noted that none of this is coming completely out of left field. Sigur Rós started out with their most maddeningly experimental record, Von, and went from there to their first glimpses of “mainstream” exposure with Agaetis Byrjun, a record which had its share of noisy guitars and dark, brooding behemoth compositions, just as much as it had calming and pretty ones. Long-time Sigur Rós fans, upon hearing that bowed guitar roaring away on a few of Kveikur‘s tracks, will probably get flashbacks to the disorienting feelings they may have had upon first hearing “Svefn-G-Englar” or “Ný Batterí”. It’s just more upfront and immediate here – I’d say seven out of these nine tracks have very dominant rhythms, while their louder songs of old usually took a long time before the tension got ratcheted up to eleven. So, if one thing you loved about the Sigur Rós equation in the past was their habit of creating these grandiose, suite-like tracks that paid off four or five minutes’ worth of anticipation with a stellar ending, you might come up a bit short here as several of Kveikur‘s tracks slip on by in fairly conventional amounts of time. The album overall is shorter than Valtari, which was already brief by Sigur Rós standards just by lasting under an hour. Personally, I don’t find this to be a problem, but it is somewhat humorous to me that these guys managed to weird me out by actually being consistently up-tempo and crafting songs that I fell in love with almost immediately for a change. When you’re used to a band making you work for it, it can seem suspect when suddenly their new stuff is so easy to like. Thankfully, deeper listening has removed most of my suspicion about whether this record has enough of its own substance beyond the shiny new sound. I might still long for one or two more “epic” tracks of the slower variety, but there are still a few six or seven-minute monsters here that remind us these guys aren’t in a big hurry to write radio singles or anything. (Maybe they just wanted to be featured in trailers for darker movies for a change?) Overall, Kveikur is an edgy, otherworldly listening experience that I really enjoy, even if it wraps up a little sooner than I wish it would, and that’s a huge relief coming on the heels of Valtari, perhaps the poster child for albums that I wished would just end already.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Brennisteinn (Brimstone)
This one’s the big shocker that got everyone talking (and by “everyone”, I mean the strange subculture of listeners from various and sometimes clashing musical genres that Sigur Rós has rolled into their fanbase from over the years). If you know the band well, the sound of the menacing, icy wind that sneaks up on you in its opening seconds won’t be a huge surprise, but when those first heavy guitar and bass chords come slamming in, it’s a startling enough turn of events to knock a few of your teeth loose. The band locks into a punishingly harsh groove that is also an incredibly addictive one, bringing in familiar elements from the past days such as the unsettling, bellowing sound of Jónsi’s bowed guitar. Even his famously androgynous voice, while not the kind of thing you’d ever think to associate with the post-metal style they’re attempting here, comes across as more alien than usual. There’s still a quiet moment mid-song for him to pause and mourn the devastation left in the wake of  his band’s pummeling musical approach. But where that would have been the emotional climax of a song on their previous albums, they go for broke in this song’s final minutes, upping the density of the drum beat so that it resembles more of an industrial, almost danceable sort of rhythm. This helps to ensure that the whole “You’ve gotta hear this one!” quality of the song doesn’t diminish over its seven minute length. It’s riveting right up to the final, mournful fadeout. And while seven minutes may be the shortest longest track on any Sigur Rós disc, absolutely nothing about it feels cut short or reigned in. The track easily belongs on a compilation of their all-time greatest epics, even if it would seriously upset the flow on said compilation.
Grade: A+

2. Hrafntinna (Obsidian)
Wow, there are just so many consonant clusters there, I’m not even going to take a stab at pronouncing this one. This highly unusual song maintains a harsh and otherworldly tone, not through heavily distorted bass or guitar, but by taking, loud, clanging, metallic percussion and shoving it way upfront in the mix. It sort of reminds me of a cross between wind chimes and the eerie sounds that the composer for LOST would make by using parts of the wrecked airplane fuselage as percussion instruments. This is done almost to the detriment of the vocals or anything that might offer the track some melody. That’s not to say that it completely lacks melody – it resolves into a grandiose, almost choral refrain if you give it time, and there’s a point where a horn section that’s been lurking into the background finally bursts out into the spotlight, the effect being somewhat like climbing onto an icy plateau and seeing the sun for the first time in days. This combination of warm sun meeting crystalline frost reminds me of something Björk might do. I realize that’s a lazy comparison to make here, because Björk is the one and only Icelandic musician that the average person has likely even heard of. But seriously, if Volta and Biophilia had a love child… well, it wouldn’t be this song exactly, but it would probably fall in love with this song and then they would have bizarre, beautiful love grandchildren.
Grade: B+

3. Ísjaki (Iceberg)
This is totally the “Hoppípolla” of the album. If you’re not familiar with “Hoppípolla”, it may well be the closest thing Sigur Rós has ever had to a hit – not due to radio exposure (haha, as if!), but due to its overuse in various trailers for environmentally-themed film. If you’ve watched cute polar bears playing while Disney slowly jerks tears from your eyes over the slow destruction of the icecaps they call home, and there were twinkly keyboards and strings and horns and a cheery, stomping drum beat… then yeah, that was the song. This one’s more up-tempo, starting immediately with the drums and pulling the rather uncharacteristic move (for this band, anyway) of taking no time whatsoever to get to the good stuff. The whole thing’s just a big, thumping parade of catchy. The melody is as velvety and happy-sad as any of their best songs, but there’s that extra oomph given to it by the increased tempo, the slippery string samples that seem to have been pitch-shifted into oblivion, and once again, some killer drum work by Orri Páll Dýrason. (Hey, the man deserved a good workout after sounding like he was out to lunch for the vast majority of Valtari.) If “Hoppípolla” is the song used to make you think twice about melting those poor icecaps, then this is the one that should be used as the soundtrack for a hair-raising sled race across a glacier, dodging the deadly crevasses without more than a split-second to think about what’s coming next, but all the time in the world to marvel at the massive adrenaline rush of it all.
Grade: A

4. Yfirborð (Surface)
This is one of the few tracks on the album that leans more toward the “experimental sound collage” thing that Valtari had going on throughout. You wouldn’t mistake it for anything from that album, because most of the song is comrpised of two steady, climactic climbs on an up-tempo dance rhythm, until a bit of noisy feedback comes whooshing in to obliterate the entire thing and make it start from scratch. Having this happen as the backdrop to another of Jónsi’s winsome melodies seems like a good enough central theme for one of the band’s more unusual songs. It’s a strange combination of the upbeat and the minimal, but it’s the beginning and end of the song, where the minimal aspects win out and the sound slowly creeps into and out of our speakers, accompanied by some creepy, low-pitched vocal samples, that I’m not so keen on. High pitched Jónsi works for me – see the second track of ( ) for a good example of that. Low-pitched Jónsi just doesn’t provide enough of an interesting hook or motif for the song to return to at the end.
Grade: C+

5. Stormur (Storm)
Dark clouds seem to loom over this one at the beginning, but you shouldn’t be too surprised at this point when the song quickly reconfigures itself into one big, celebratory rain dance, with its ringing keyboard melody (yes, they do still use those) pouring down like manna from heaven. Jónsi’s vocals are at their most angelic and expressive – despite not understanding a word of what he’s singing, the peaceful mood of the song comes through loud and clear, as if he’s relieved that a long drought had finally ended. The drums bound across the landscape of distant thunder, with the whip-crack sound of the snare striking like a predictable form of lightning each time. I love how a song like this can have dense production, with lots of bells and other happy, echo-ey sounds to it, but never feel overly cluttered or contrived in any way, because the band doesn’t forget to infuse it with brief moments of reflective calm.
Grade: A-

6. Kveikur (Candlewick)
So maybe it was “Brennisteinn” that had the big scare chords, but honestly, the title track is the most unnerving thing on the album. It’s also pretty frickin’ cool. A pounding industrial rhythm, extremely fuzzy bass, and more of that metallic percussion we heard in… you know, that song I can’t pronounce… all meet in some sort of a summit of nightmarish sounds, and just to rattle your bones a little more, you can hear snippets of a children’s choir in the background as the song is getting ramped up. And that’s not even mentioning the startling swipes of de-tuned guitar noise that come swooping into the song here and there, and which get dragged out into an extended, dissonant outro at the end of it. These sounds wouldn’t have been completely out of place on the latest Flaming Lips album, since this track is definitely a trip into the darkest corners of the band’s imagination. Jónsi’s voice even seems smeared and distorted here, almost as if the band is disguised as some comic book version of its evil twin from a parallel universe. That doesn’t mean the song is without hooks or melody, though – quite the opposite, actually, since the chorus drives home a repeating melody that I could swear involves him returning to the word “Repeater” over and over again. (I’m sure I’m just making that up, since the lyrics are of course in Icelandic, but it fits.) His wordless cooing on the refrain makes him sound like nothing less than the angel of death. This’ll be a hard sell for some fans, I’m sure, but I find it absolutely intoxicating.
Grade: A+

7. Rafstraumur (Electric Current)
If I could make one criticism of the album overall, it’s that by the time you get this far into it, you pretty much know the two recipes that make up most of it, and there’s nothing to surprising after the two heaviest tracks have passed you by. This returns to the sunny, up-tempo mood that dominates a good chunk of the album – you can almost see golden rays pouring in through a bedroom window in the early morning during its ambient intro. Jónsi’s wispy vocals resemble the giddy, “I’m-so-in-love” mood of the most manic songs on his solo album – seriously, just mash up “Go Do” and “Around Us” and this is pretty much what you’ll get. Maybe just throw in a little more guitar during its triumphant parade of a refrain. Now I can’t be too down on the band for this, since I love hearing them in this mode, even if by this point they’re not bringing as many new ideas to the table. After all, if I had the chance to hear Jónsi’s solo stuff performed by the full band, I’d totally jump at it. Still, I have to save the highest ratings for the stuff that surprises me the most pleasantly, and this one falls slightly short of that.
Grade: B+

8. Bláþráður (Thin Thread)
Two very good songs, both on the faster and denser end of the Sigur Rós spectrum, suffer a bit from being mashed together near the end here. The band has long enough songs that I generally don’t insist they fulfill my arbitrary 10-track minimum, but on this album, it would have helped to have something slower and mellower, or more experimental, or just altogether different, from these two tracks to split them up. This one feels like an excellent idea for a late-album emotional climax that perhaps got a tad rushed in the delivery. The lonely guitar melody that opens it, while it might lead us to expect a mellower song, seems almost cut and pasted from “Rafstraumur”, as if the two songs were thematically joined in the same way that “Around Us” and “Grow Till Tall” were on Jónsi’s solo album. Where this one surprises me is in its relatively quick jump from peaceful stillness to earth-shaking drums striking every sixteenth note like there’s no tomorrow. Part of me really enjoys the surprise – it was tailor-made for me to beat it out on my steering wheel at stoplights, as I so often love to do with frantic drum parts in rock songs. Part of me feels like the song needs another minute or two to really earn its way to that exhilarating high point. This is a weird thing to say, but at five minutes, the song actually seems shorter than it ought to. I know I’m just conditioned to expect these guys to take a long time to warm up and then wind down. It’s a dumb thing to complain about when they’ve put together such an exciting piece of music, which slowly melts into deeper layers of distortion until the final bits of Jónsi’s vocals are completely digitized, leading to the sort of atmospheric outro we’ve come to expect from the band – the long, slow, fade of horns and trembling guitars and all that. It just all feels like it happened a bit too soon, like a TV drama whose episode order got cut back a bit, so they had to condense all of the storylines leading up to the finale into a single episode.
Grade: B+

9. Var (Shelter)
I almost have to laugh at the band for putting a hazy, chilled-out piano instrumental at the end of this album. It just doesn’t fit with anything that came before it, and its melody is so minimal and repetitive, relying on murky string noises in the background to make it interesting, that it honestly feels like it got cut from Valtari after they realized they could instead belabor the point with a much longer and more drawn-out piano instrumental on that album. I guess I should be grateful that this one only runs for three minutes and change. There’s nothing inherently bad about it – it just seems like it’s designed as a breather to give us a bit of space in between more intense, epic-length tracks. When it trails off at the end and we’ve got nothing left to explore, it feels like a bit of a shrug from the band, an acknowledgment that ending on something up-tempo didn’t sound right to them, and so they reverted back to old habits. (Think about it. Except for the extremely uncharacteristic thundering climax from the eighth track of ( ), the band has never ended an album on anything particularly amazing.)
Grade: C

There are, of course, a couple bonus tracks available to those who purchased the Japanese or vinyl releases of this album, if you really want more of Kveikur to explore. Given that “Hryggjarsúla” is nothing but meaningless, earache-inducing noise, and “Ofbirta” is yet another exercise in dragged-out ambience for its own sake, it’s best to just forget about these two tracks. They’re easily worse than just about anything on Valtari. I suppose that if nothing else, they were worth hearing as an example of what sort of stuff the band chose to leave off of this record. Still, I can’t help but wonder what sort of magic the band could have worked if the best instrumental bits and sound collages from either these tracks or Valtari‘s eight “songs” were worked into Kveikur as shorter interludes. That could have been an incredible album of emotional peaks and valleys, tugging at the heartstrings and then getting the heart pounding with excitement, and knowing just how long to prolong each emotional response before transitioning into something else. Kveikur is fine enough on its own that it probably shouldn’t be tampered with… I just like to play the “what if” game whenever I’m having trouble making sense of a band’s motivations, I guess.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Brennisteinn $2
Hrafntinna $1.25
Ísjaki $1.75
Yfirborð $.50
Stormur $1.50
Kveikur $2
Rafstraumur $1.25
Bláþráður $1.25
Var $.25
TOTAL: $11.75

BAND MEMBERS:
Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass
Georg “Goggi” Hólm: Bass guitar, glockenspiel, keyboards, backing vocals
Orri Páll Dýrason: Drums, percussion, samples, keyboards

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/0jk1nICWMJk5zMdwqwvHdk

USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk
http://www.facebook.com/sigurros

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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