Published on June 20th, 2013 | by Jake Stergos, Senior writer
Sigur Rós – Kveikur
After releasing the middling and interminable (albeit very pretty) Valtari last year, nobody expected much more to come from Sigur Rós, the Icelandic quartet that dazzled audiences with their expansive sound and elaborate arrangements for over a decade beforehand. The band had made a caricature of themselves, and even long-time fans couldn’t be blamed for being disappointed with a release that wavered between ambient nothingness and clichéd climaxes that Sigur Rós already explored years ago.
Cue “Brennisteinn” (in English: brimstone). The lead single accompanied the announcement of Kveikur, and only several months after many people thought the band was done for good. The message was clear: Sigur Rós was back with a vengeance. “Brennisteinn” finds the band firing on all fronts to open Kveikur, the rhythm section refuting the ambience of Valtari like rabid dogs, with a heavily distorted bass riff and furiously pounding drums. Jónsi Birgisson’s vocals return graciously to the forefront as well, after taking a backseat on the previous album. Elsewhere, “Kveikur” recaptures the same energy of the first song, with drummer Orri Páll Dýrason especially lighting up the track throughout. This is fitting, for a song with a title translated to “candlewick,” and with lyrics that are translated to “You ignite me” and “Burning the hand into the bone.”
Kveikur isn’t all savage energy though. “Ísjaki” begins with the same sense of drama and brooding spectacle that permeated tracks like “Sæglópur” and “Ný batterí” of past albums, but it blooms into a danceable groove that is reminiscent of Jónsi’s solo release, Go. “Stormur” has a nimble bass-drum pattern that transforms it from a meditative first verse into what is likely closest thing Sigur Rós will ever come to being funky.
The album does have its flaws though, despite not actually having a bad song on it. In fact, “Hrafntinna” is quite lovely with its jangling percussion and emotive brass and string arrangements, but its impact is lessened by the fact that it is in the same key and at nearly the same lumbering tempo as “Brennisteinn” which packs considerably more of a punch immediately prior to it.
Likewise, both “Rafstraumur” and “Bláþráður” are particularly excellent slices of arena-rock in the vein of Coldplay or U2, but when paired together, their similar tempos and driving eighth-note rhythms feel a bit repetitive. Album closer and instrumental “Var” seems like it was tagged on because, well, why not end a Sigur Rós album with a simple and gorgeous instrumental? There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t make any real impact either.
What’s striking about this album though is how much fun it is, despite the heaviness of the production and the thickness of the musical arrangements. Sigur Rós sound like they’re having a blast breaking out of their self-imposed cage of Valtari. Orri Páll Dýrason especially gets a chance to shine, and his appetite for rhythmic inventiveness gives a jolt to the otherwise glacial sonic landscapes that populate Kveikur. Listen to how he turns “Yfirborð” from a crawling bore into a masterful piece of moody electronica, for example.
It also helps that not every song pushes the nine-minute mark on this album, reinforcing this album’s sense of movement, in stark contrast to Valtari. Jónsi’s songwriting is tighter and more effective than ever, allowing each song to explode or die off at just the right moment. It seems that his explorations in pop music on his solo release have finally and thankfully made their way into his main band. Kveikur may suffer from some minor pacing issues, but Sigur Rós sound as chill-inducing and cathartic as they have been since Takk… and frankly, it’s just great to have them back.