Sigur Ros - Kveikur
I don’t know how many of you have been punched directly in the nose. I have, on numerous occasions. Chalk it up to lack of popularity, a tendency to say stupid things and a funny looking face, but I am well versed in the feeling. When “Brennisteinn” first played, I immediately thought I’d selected the wrong playlist on my iPod. Then that almost My Bloody Valentine-ish wall of noise whacked me clean on the nose. I was lying calmly on my floor ready to drift off into another Icelandic wonderland of myth and ethereal noises, of lush green pastures and slow, silky sound scapes, when Jónsi and co drop the bomb on me. This is different. Sigur Ros never do different..
A staple of the avant-garde and electronic diet, these trailblazers have intrigued and delighted music lovers since the brilliant Von in 1997. 1999 brought the critically acclaimed Ágætis byrju, which housed the now iconic "Svefn-g-englar", a watershed moment for the genre. What genre, exactly, is still under debate. Is it ambient? Shoegaze? An advanced form of melodic psychedelica? Is there even a blatant melody to follow? Either way its popularity and widespread use in film and television proved a breakthrough for this form of music. Around the same time Massive Attack was having success with “Teardrop”, another track you wouldn’t associate with the mainstream. But Sigur Ros were always different. These beautiful Icelandic musical fairies who lived on the periphery, who’s music was a gateway to another, completely alternate reality that was so far removed from the workaday life world it became instantly desirable.
They continued along this path for a decade and a half. Takk... was their most indulgent release, but even this was only one step further than pure ambience. Granted, it was a defining step, but one nonetheless. Then came Valtari in 2012 and the world knew something had to give. Sonically, a lovely album, but more absorbent than absorbing. No longer could you lose yourself in the sound. In fact it felt worse than that. It was almost as if they were trudging through the motions, unwilling or unable to navigate out of the path they’d themselves forged.
Being punched in the nose is rarely pleasant, but on this occasion I found myself smiling. It’s not that Valtari was bad, it just left the sense that there was more. Kveikur is so much more. It’s a mid-life crisis. One day, the single minded accountant wakes up, he’s 47 years old and stuck in a rut he spent his whole life digging. But he doesn’t act recklessly. Instead he goes out and buys himself a 2001 Ferrari Barchetta, something guaranteed to appreciate in value. Sigur Ros haven’t released a thrash metal album or declared themselves bigger than Oasis. The change, whilst glacial in a world of such little, is so natural and organic you know you’re listening to Sigur Ros, just more. Those dirty guitars and crunching grinds at the start of “Brennisteinn” are tempered wonderfully by Jónsi’s instantly recognisable melodic vocal haze. There is just so much more substance here. A blissfully docile monster has suddenly been awakened, a powerful beast has been stung in to action. It’s bloody wonderful!
It is unfair to classify Sigur Ros as ambient though. There have always been edges to their music. Elements of My Bloody Valentine and Explosions in the Sky have under toned their beautiful visions. This feels like an awakening of a soul that was buried, inexplicably, for too long. The percussion is immense, "Ísjaki" is Icelandic for Iceberg but it’s such an unfitting title. Icebergs sit in the middle of the sea and sink ships. This song moves. Jonsi’s falsetto rises wonderfully from the depths to puncture the sky, propelled by the rocket fuel of a scorned drum kit. The strings all rise as one, arcing upwards as the mood elevates stunningly. This is, quite frankly, one of the best tracks of the year. Unleashing the latent power of Jonsi’s voice in a way we’ve never experienced before is staggering. You realise now how stunted he was on Valtari, a beautiful piece of art suspended in stasis, unable to break free. Now the shackles are off and the drums have joined the party, it’s a riot.
It’s hard to say what influence Sigur Ros has truly had on the music industry. They’ve existed, quite comfortably apparently, within their own unique world since their formation, even singing most of their songs in “Vonlenska” , a made up language that focuses on sounds complimenting the music rather than any form of meaning behind the lyrics. It’s difficult to imitate such unique beauty without blatantly plagiarising. Bands like Amiina and múm have certainly captured that same sound, but whether or not this is a direct influence or just that incredible fantasy land full of folk pixies they’ve come from, Iceland, exerting its influence is up for debate. What is certain is this is the hardest they’ve ever rocked, the closest they’ve come to true post-rock, something they threatened in a big way on Takk... but never quite arrived at. The title track “Kveikur” is pure post-rock, an atmospheric rise through the gears reminiscent of Anathema, with Jonsi reaching the stars expertly in a low key, and Orri working overtime on the skins, thrashing about like a madman. “Rafstraumur” ends absolutely wonderfully, it’s a beautiful piece of music that grows so naturally from a Valtari like mix of warm strings towards an ever disappearing climax that, when reached, is almost sexual in nature. They give us a few seconds afterwards to catch our breath and our thoughts. You need it.
It’s safe to say that this stylistic change has been largely due to the percussion and bass elements. On Valtari this instrumentation were almost totally absent. The odd thing was you didn’t notice it immediately. It just felt like Sigur Ros. That was until this record. The whole band comes alive so vibrantly and wonderfully when Orri begins to awaken from his deep sleep. Jonsi’s vocals rise like a bird set free after years of captivity, streaking through the sky with glee. On "Bláþráður" he sounds more confident than I’ve heard him in years, liberated. He soars when he needs, but rather than relying on that devastating falsetto too often he utilises lower keys too, eliminating the fragile aspect of his range to deliver pure strength. The bloke can sing, that’s for sure. This is no elfin prance through the woods, this is a full brigade of unicorns crashing their way gracefully through the undergrowth, parting the trees as if by divine whim.
The most pleasing aspect is that every song now feels purposeful, every piece of music has an endgame. Funnily enough, I liken it most to Limp Bizkit’s earlier work. You knew at 3:30 every song there was going to be some form of change, some plan taking form. Anathema are experts at this as well. Whilst both "Hrafntinna" and "Ísjaki” start slowly, both of them build to wonderful moments of sparkling light. The only time they reprise their ambient role is on the lovely “Var”, a piano-based number that feels out of sorts on this album, it almost feels un-Sigur Ros, yet it would fit snugly in to their back catalogue.
8.5/10. This album is nothing short of brilliant. For a band to go through such a dramatic change is hard enough, but the wonderful thing about Kveikur is they actually sound like Sigur Ros, like you always imagined they should or could. It alienates their softer work, consigning it to a past that is no longer theirs. It’s such a staggering record you’re shocked when it abruptly ends and the needle clicks up. The only thing for it is to stand up, shake the blood that’s pooled in your head, pin the needle back down and go for another round.
Best Tracks: Brennisteinn, Isjaki, Kveikur