For a band with such an original sound, Sigur Rós has played it pretty conservative when it comes to stepping outside its emotional comfort zone. While the Icelandic trio has explored various song structures and arrangements—ranging from the monolithic, highly textured arrangements of () (that’s the name of the album to all those who don’t know) to the shorter, peppy cuts on Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust – they really haven’t explored a vast emotional landscape. Most of the group’s work explores the gentle and reflective dimensions of joy, bliss, and solemnity. While the group has consistently produced quality albums (with Ágætis byrjun and () qualifying as post-rock classics), there was a growing sense that Sigur Rós was becoming somewhat predictable. That’s a perfect description of 2012’s Valtari: beautifully performed, elegantly arranged… and exactly what everyone expected.
That makes the group’s latest release, Kveikur, quite refreshing. Kveikur explores darker and more abstract moods than their previous records, often with sharp and abrasive textures; at the same time, Sigur Rós still manages to create the vast, expansive soundscapes they are known for. A fair comparison would be the haunting, spacy ambiance of Radiohead’s Kid A. Kveikur creates a similarly alien terrain where melodies seem to float within an endless black ether.
That said, Sigur Rós hasn’t completely redefined its sound. The foundation is still the same: Jónsi’s signature falsetto, a dense atmosphere and endless layers of sound emerging from everything from horns to accordions to guitars. Sigur Rós transforms its sound through slight adjustments. Jónsi’s vocals are a little more haunting and there is a slight increase in the number of atonal passages. The only area where Sigur Ros really alters its sound is in the rhythm section. Usually, Sigur Rós likes to settle down into slow tempos, but most of Kveikur is far more driven. Throughout the record the rhythm section is sharp and focused. Most of the beats have an industrial edge – often accentuated by distorted bass (i.e. “Rafstraumur” and “Brennisteinn”); other times the beats offer a more organic, almost tribal sound (i.e. the blend of chimes and bass drum that open “Hrafntinna”).
Sigur Rós’ “Brennisteinn” (Live Broadcast)
Some might be skeptical of Sigur Rós’ ability to produce more aggressive, edgy pieces but the group proves to be more dynamic than many would expect. Their excellent sense for atmosphere and texture allows them to create truly haunting compositions. The title track is especially chilling, with its pounding, mechanical rhythm section and distressed vocals that suddenly lead the way to a majestic bridge.
Though Sigur Rós explores some darker landscapes, there is still room for a few brighter compositions. “Isjaki” contrasts a ghostly verse with a downright blissful chorus and “Rafstraumur” overflows with a sense of joy and glory from start to finish. Similarly, Sigur Rós occasionally slow down the tempo. “Yfirbord” opens with a dreamy soundscape of low oboe-like drones, horns and a series of modulated vocal lines and the album finishes with, “Var,” a melancholic largo for piano, strings and various electronics.
Variety is the strength of Kveikur. The bright moments taste sweeter against the bleak backdrop of most of the album, the moments of still contemplation are welcome respites from the steady pace that typifies the record and the darker moments send shivers down your spine. The sum total is a record that is engrossing from start to finish. Overall, this is the best record Sigur Rós has released in the last decade.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor