Call the genre whatever you want (art-rock, post-rock, experimental, ambient, downright tasty), Iceland’s Sigur Rós is one of the best bands of the current generation. Big claim, I know, but Kveikur only solidifies the band’s stature as one of the genre’s best. If you like Sigur Rós, go ahead and pick this record up.
In past years, Sigur Ros has been criticized for having a “formula”. If you’re a fan of the band, you probably have some idea of what this formula is: soft, atmospheric music, swelling chord changes, and a gigantic build up that leaves the song on a massive crescendo. Perhaps the band has been aware of their critics. Since 2008’s Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, the band has retreated from their past “slow-burn to explosive finale” tendencies. Their 2008 record found the band attempting to write more conventional pop songs (well, what would be pop for Sigur Ros, I suppose), and 2012’s Valtari was an exercise in decrescendos. Valtari (a record I love), was created around music starting somewhat big and working its way down – the album even ends on a 3-song streak in which each proceeding song is a bit softer and a bit more minimalist than the last. For this reason, coupled with the loss of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, I was prepared for a minimalist exercise with Kveikur.
Earlier in the year, the band released “Brennisteinn” as their single to promote Kveikur. This feels a bit misleading (not dishonest though) – the single doesn’t really represent what the album sounds like, but rather, it indicates that Sigur Ros is still tooling around with their sound. To put another way, the rest of Kveikur doesn’t sound like “Brennisteinn” – instead, it seems to be an assurance that we aren’t getting another Valtari, or another ( ), or another Von. Because this song leads the album, it starts Kveikur off with a near-industrial crunch. At almost 8-minutes, it’s one of the most unexpected turns for the band.
Similarly, second-released single “Ísjaki” isn’t as representative either. Ísjaki is busy in ways that most of Kveikur isn’t, and Jonsi’s vocals constantly keep the melody moving along. But these two singles together tell the story of Kveikuer perfectly – many of the moments on Kveikur are characterized by poppy melodies thrown against a jagged backdrop. The title track for example has Jonsi singing incredibly catchy vocals over distorted electronics. These moments give the album’s cover (a boy holding an old gas mask over his face) some context. Other tracks like “Yfirborð” and “Stormur” try to strike a similar balance, with Jonsi staying squarely in the spotlight this time around, rather than letting the music play on without him like we’ve seen in past releases.
The band continues toying with its sound, so there is plenty of new things to hear here though. Musically, this record feels like a mix between Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust and Valtari – these songs are perhaps a bit more straight-forward than the Sigur Rós we are used to, but every song is loaded with a healthy dose of atmosphere. By the time the closer “Var” comes around, it feels like we can finally rest. It’s a quiet, ambient track that gives listeners a chance to reflect – so much of Kveikur is loaded with business, it feels somewhat relieving to have this moment before circling around back to “Brennisteinn.”
If you haven’t liked anything you’ve heard by Sigur Rós so far, you probably won’t find much on Kveikur to change your mind. For fans of the band though, this album is a must-hear. Don’t let the lead track “Brennisteinn” scare you away – there’s plenty here of the band you know and love, but there’s also plenty that you’ve never heard from them before. This might be my favorite of their’s since 2005’s Takk…
Notable tracks to download/sample: “Ísjaki”, “Yfirborð”, and “Kveikur”