Sigur Rós has long provided a sort of hymnal template for the secular masses. Those without spirituality or religion latch on to their music as much as believers for the transcendental window it seems to open. Their droning guitars seem to contain entire mythologies, Jónsi’s voice and uninterpretable lyrics as sort of tongues speaking bent on colonizing traditional experience with wonder. It’s not too far-fetched to think a Sigur Rós song would be playing as our global anthem should the world ever truly attain peace and be put to rights. Which makes their latest, Kveikur, all the more interesting. The band so long associated with bringing heavenly, resurrecting sounds to this terrestrial plane have now put out a record that sounds like a crushing and beautiful apocalypse.
This is the first time Sigur Rós has come out with new material only a year since their previous release. 1999’s Ágætis byrjun was as icy, innocent and navy blue in sound as its fetus-graced cover suggested. Three years later came the ambient ( ), which seemed to capture an entire winter’s gentle snowfall within the grasp of its parentheses. Cut forward from 2002 to 2005 and you have the voyaging, inspirational Takk… Another three years after that brought about the less impressive but still masterful Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. Last year’s Valtari was more of the art they’d perfected since 1994, an 18-year-old’s senior year of sorts. Around 18, things seemed to be moving smooth, easy and comfortable for the band. But ask any 19-year-old, and you’ll know that the empty promises of senior year’s completed comforts are dashed by the newness of freshman year at college. At 19, the band’s released Kveikur, and it’s their most aggressive, new and expansive record in years.
From 2012 to 2013, Sigur Rós lost their long-term keyboardist but gained a new sense of vigor. Kveikur is the work of Jónsi Birgisson on vocals and guitar, Georg Hólm on bass and Orri Dýrason on drums. From the first track “Brennisteinn,” this trio makes it abundantly clear how loud and proud a group of three can be. At first there is the crackle and mystery customary of any Sigur Rós album, but then comes something startling. The bass slaps loudly as Jónsi’s guitar ascends like an F-16 into the sky. Gone for now are the soundtracks for making snow angels the band delivered with grace in the past. Kveikur starts with an outright blizzard, and it’s the most frightening, jarring and impressive track they’ve released in some time.
It’s not to say Sigur Rós ever ceased being innovative. Indeed, if any band can lay claim to always trafficking in creative refurbishment, it’s these Icelanders. But the bands that are the most impressive are always those whose shifts in sound still contain that indelible fingerprint, that single snowflake falling that indicates the album is theirs and theirs alone. Kveikur is still stamped with all the characteristics which have made the band so appreciated and inspiring in the past, but now with a new sense of angsty vigor.
“Hrafntinna” continues some of the fierceness from the first track, complete with rampant, industrial clanging but already things are slowing down. From “Ísjaki” to “Stormur,” we’re in more familiar territory—slightly more subdued and comforting, but it still sounds like the paradise they’ve created with their last records after Armageddon. Past palaces of ice have been leveled and listeners are left with the craggy icebergs to climb and make sense of. There’s still a beauty to it all, but it remains different to the kind we’re used to them exposing.
Title track “Kveikur” reawakens the beast first summoned by “Brennisteinn” for another sort of Ragnarok. Where their past magnificence seemed largely natural and fluid, here it’s mechanical and chugging. “Rafstraumur” has all the trappings of both their old and new styles. They’ve long specialized in melodic cacophony, and here they’ve really got it hook, line and sinker. It’s the track most suggestive of another, better world out there crashing into our own. And those songs have always been the ones which seemed to be their greatest gifts to the music listening masses. “Bláþráður” is percussive and grand while “Var” is quiet but still on the edge of disaster. Those two tracks close the album with an air of disquieted grace, a return to sleep after an arresting night of dreams gone wild.
It’s refreshing to see a band so accustomed to scoring the more pleasant of our dreams and fantasies dealing with a sonic territory at times more close to nightmare. Though Kveikur is more anxious and busy than a lot of their past output, it still possesses the heavenly quality all their other records so admirably held on to as well. But even in Paradise, the angels fell. Kudos to Sigur Rós for getting the sound of it on tape.