Album Review: Sigur Ros- Kveikur

Touring in support of a record that isn’t out yet is an ambitious undertaking. It seems counterintuitive—usually a band will tour once the record is out, play a lot of it in their live set, and hope that people will buy the album from the merch table before leaving the show.

While they are pretty much on the road for the rest of 2013, when Sigur Ros’s North American trek began in the spring, they were a good two months away from the release of their seventh studio album, Kveikur, which Wikipedia tells me translates “Candlewick.”

The last eight years of Sigur Ros’s career have been interesting to track. After a foray into the majors with 2005’s Takk (Thanks), released on Geffen, that record saw the band steering things into a more focused, pop-song format. Takk is filled with the band’s more recognizable, mainstream efforts—singles like “Glowing Sole,” and “Hopping into Puddles,” always draw a big reaction from the crowd in a live setting. Three years later, on With a Buzz in Our Ears, We Play Endlessly, the band frontloaded the record with just straight up pop music—effectively shaking any of the noise and menace that they explored on their earlier material.

After frontman Jonsi’s one-off solo joint, Go, the band unassumingly released Valtari (Steamroller) in 2012. Strangely enough, it was their highest charting record in the States, but it is also their most inaccessible to a casual listen, and it seems like it also has been their most panned by critics, who wrote it off as, “Oh, here’s Sigur Ros making another album of pretty sounds again.” Valtari almost didn’t happen at all—the music was compiled from abandoned recording sessions done in 2009, which were then handed over to Jonsi’s life-partner Alex Somers, and he was instructed to make a record out of it. The result was their most restrained, ambient, and gorgeous work to date.

Paired down to a three-piece now after the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, Kveikur was explained early on as the band taking their sound into a more aggressive direction. If the lead single, the absolutely punishing “Brennisteinn” (“Brimstone”) was any indication of what to expect, it was obvious Sigur Ros were not here to fuck around.

While it is certainly their most noisy and aggressive work in over a decade, it still is covered in a healthy layer of studio sheen, and it’s still full of pop-song moments, carefully wedged here and there in between the pounding drums and bowed-guitar feedback.

“Brennisteinn” is an obvious choice as the opening track—setting the bar high and loud with its fuzzed out bass and clattering, clanking percussion. In fact, Kveikur is a relatively percussion-heavy affair. The clattering and clanking shows up in a few songs, and almost all nine of the songs involve very complex rhythms, which then puts the focus on the drumming—all of it produced in an overblown yet somehow warm and clean sounding juxtaposition which makes for as fascinating listen.

The band’s use of the term “aggressive” when describing the album is a tad bit misleading. Yes it is more aggressive when compared to their last two studio albums, but on many of the songs, aggression seems to be traded in for just a “harder edge,” but they are still very listenable and non-threatening. The title track is the only song that really lives up to the example given by “Brennisteinn.” 

The album’s second single, “Isjaki” (“Iceberg”), along with “Stormur” (“Storm”) are both tracks that fall into the pop-song structure that worked so well for the singles on Takk….  Towards the end of the record, “Rafstramur” (“Electric Current”) finds the band at their most triumphant sounding. And on the song that follows, “Blaflra-ur,” (“Thin Thread”), finds them at their most lavish—I mean, all of Kveikur sounds “big,” but that song is, by far, the biggest.

I would go into a lyrical analysis of Kveikur, but part of the novelty of Sigur Ros is that all of their songs (save for one) are sung in their native Icelandic, and occasionally a made up, phonetic language called “Hopelandic.” For American audiences, presumably the lyrics take a backseat, and you focus on the melody, the theatrics, and the atmosphere created by the band.

By the time a band releases a seventh full-length, you would expect to say something like, “it’s the next logical step in their career.” With Sigur Ros, and especially with Kveikur, that’s something you’ll never say—or even think. Just as the turn into a pop sound was a surprise, just as the backpedaling to a more ambient sound-collage was a surprise, diving into this “aggressive” or “harder” sound, at this point in the game, is a surprise.

I guess you could look at this album as all of the facets of Sigur Ros coming together—forming like Voltron if you will. There are “pretty” moments. There’s the element of the pop song—and also song length. They never let things get out of hand on Kveikur. And then there’s the noise, which is an element that was ever present on their early 2000’s output. It’s an immediate album—in the sense that it grabs your attention. It’s nowhere near as life affirming as, say, Ageatis Byrjun, or ( ) is, and it’s doubtful they will ever recapture that feeling. It’s attention grabbing because it’s a loud, ever-evolving record, and it requires your full attention so you can keep up with it.