[17 June 2013]
Short of a Scott Walker-esque turn for the bleakly absurd, Kveikur (“Candlewick”) will probably be as dark as Sigur Rós will ever get. Melancholy and anger aren’t foreign concepts to the ethereally beautiful world of this Icelandic trio, whose lineup was shortened by one with the departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson in 2012. On their career peak ()—known commonly as “The Bracket Album”—the group channeled their orchestral style into an exploration of the somber side of beautiful. The grey introspection of the 2011 live CD/DVD Inni further added to the undercurrent of gloom in the band’s music. Though Sigur Rós will be perpetually known as the guys who wowed the world with the otherworldly gorgeousness of Ágætis byrjun, the broad brush strokes the group is often painted with by critics ignore the threads of the morose that run throughout their discography.
But, in some cases, those brush strokes are pretty accurate. Kveikur‘s 2013 release, barely a year after Valtari, is a gutsy move, considering that the lasting impression left from the latter was that the entropy in Sigur Rós’ core formula had finally begun to kick in. Valtari is a lovely and well-composed album, but when following works as groundbreaking as Ágætis byrjun and (), it’s necessary to change things up in some distinct way. When the band did this successfully, as when they took their glacial compositional style and framed it within the context of the pop album with 2005’s Takk…, the sound wasn’t being changed as much as it was re-oriented. It’s easy to get entraptured by this kind of music. These dreamy soundscapes are written to near perfection and Sigur Rós has consistently stuck to its naturalistic, emotionally compelling style, the law of diminishing returns notwithstanding. Simply put, you can always count on Sigur Rós to sound like Sigur Rós. There have been little to no curveballs in the group’s career, only marginally successful variations on a theme.
All of this explains why the opening moments of Kveikur probably come as a shock to most everyone. The music begins in static—a common device in the band’s repertoire—but not long after, thudding bass and electronics slam into the mix. It’s the kind of thing one would expect from a hybrid metal LP, not from the songwriters behind “Svefn-g-englar” and “Hoppípolla”. Following the been-there-done that Valtari, it’s like taking in lungfuls of air after being trapped underwater. This first song, the lead single “Brennisteinn” (quite fittingly, “Brimstone”), is then followed up with the percussion-heavy “Hrafntinna”. A few tracks down the road is the propulsive title cut, which rips a page out of post-metal’s playbook with its Brian Cook-inspired bassline. When added up into an aggregate light/dark comparison, these aspects of Kveikur do indeed confirm that it is Sigur Rós’ dark album.
That moniker, however, is not only misleading, but only true on the comparative. The angelic quality of the band’s music up to this point meant that even a slight increase in distortion or low-end sonic experimentation would have made whatever they put out as “their dark album”. Those who like their music brutal and weighty, probably the same people who wouldn’t have been keen on a group whose greatest hits include songs like “Hoppípolla”, will find some superficial appeal here, but it’s not a work that’s aiming at converting metal fans to wispy post-rock. Moreover, even when Keveikur is at its darkest, the trademark beauty of Sigur Rós is never far behind. On “Brennisteinn”, after the tectonic plodding of the instruments has made its impact, in comes frontman and vocalist Jónsi Birgisson, whose seraphic pipes could wring elegance out of a Burzum number. His presence is one of the many things that keeps Kveikur tethered to the identity Sigur Rós has established for itself for its almost 20-year existence.
Beyond that, there are multiple tracks here that tread familiar waters. Second single “Ísjaki” has a pretty close sonic relation to Coldplay’s “Lost” with respect to melody, and the jangly “Lovers in Japan” piano on “Stormur” also references those weepy Brits. “Var” closes off the LP with the piano-led grace that these three have mastered. The darkness that will inevitably talked up following Kveikur‘s worldwide release is actually not a consistent fact about this album; most of the heavy material appears in its first half, and the last three songs mine the epic tropes that defined Valtari, albeit with much greater success, particularly on the moving “Rafstraumur”. Sameness may have plagued Sigur Rós’ past few outings, but rather than opting for a lazy 180 that skips over what makes its sound so iconic, the ever-mature band just draws out those parts of its style that were on the backburner up until now. The squalls of noise on “Brennisteinn” are indeed a sign of new life in these Icelanders, but they also aren’t entirely without precedent. Really, the only time where things come way out of left field is the bizarrely placed house beat on “Yfirborð”, which, weird though it is, ends up working quite well within the record’s solemn palette.
For every step forward Sigur Rós takes with Kveikur, the ground shifts just a few feet ahead of them. This is the exact type of work that needed to happen following Valtari: it’s bold when it needs to be without sacrificing the group’s hallmark signposts. In what will probably be a source of chagrin for some, the ominous, KKK-referencing cover to the LP doesn’t signal “Sigur Rós gone goth” or “Sigur Rós gone post-metal”. Neither of those constructions have ever been plausible given the trio’s career trajectory. What Kveikur finds these musicians doing is expanding their sound with a sort of Goldilocks principle: not too much or to little change—especially considering how the latter has plagued them before—but just exactly the right amount. Past records like Ágætis byrjun paid homage to the breathtaking Icelandic countryside, while Kveikur documents the jagged black-grey tracts of pumice-covered land just outside Rekyjavik. It’s easy to forget that beneath all those lush green hills lies a volcanic hotbed just waiting to erupt.