Sigur Rós - Kveikur | Album Review | By Volume

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Sigur Rós



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Author: on June 13, 2013
XL Recordings
June 17, 2013
To give you an idea of Sigur Rós’ new album Kveikur, observe this snippet of a conversation I had with By Volume editor Adam Knott after we’d each had our first listens.
The new Sigur Rós is sick

I know, it’s like
I’m pretty sure my neighbours hate me?
because i’ve been playing it non-stop and it has drums



To me, the signature Sigur Rós moment is a segment towards the end of the Heima performance of “Untitled 8,” when the mesmerizing drone cuts, the curtain drops, and all there is on stage is drummer Orri Dyrason playing a rousing beat with brushes. The down-lighting gives him a tremendous shadow, and the rest of the band, now obscured by the semi-sheer curtain, are turned into massive shadows, looking like ghosts looming as the drums pound ever-closer to oblivion. It’s long been an established platitude of post-rock criticism that Sigur Rós are second to only Godspeed You! Black Emperor if we judge the genre’s bands by the overblown literary descriptions their devoted followers give them. Of late, however, the band’s ability to conjure the magic that anyone who’s ever been bewitched by post-rock can identify has been somewhat in doubt.

Me, I’ve always heard it most distinctly in 2002’s ( ). Sigur Rós practically piss angelic bombast, but they’ve also shown a tendency to complacently ride that bombast until their music fades prettily into the abyss (most egregious offenders: 2012’s Valtari and the nice-but-glacial Agaetis Byrjun). The Parentheses Album is one of the few times there’s been an identifiable darkness to Sigur Rós, an edge that pushed their grandiosity from impressive to awesome, a terrible and fantastic menace that changed the character of the Icelanders from otherworldly androgynes to horsemen of the apocalypse. This darker quality drenched the vastly underrated second half of that record (the close-parentheses, if you will) and was left largely in the dust as the band fell in love with joy. The mid 2000s found Sigur Rós wedded to producing blinding spurts sunshine, which helped pushed them into the mainstream, but Takk and that album no one can pronounce ran that into the ground somewhere around the 9th minute of “Ara Batur,” leaving Sigur Rós something akin to the Coldplay of post-rock: tremendous, important, and hardly worth thinking twice about.

In short, it’s been years since Sigur Rós were the stuff of legend; in the span between Takk and Valtari, they’ve moved closer to the realm of mom rock than post rock, and their moment, while a wonderful memory, is growing distant in the hindsight. I’d be stunned if Kveikur sparked a Sigur Rós resurgence. It lacks the life-changing quality of, say, “Vaka,” if only because the Sigur Rós template is so familiar by this point. Bowed guitar, choir-boy vocals and the word “ethereal” are all present on Kveikur, but even though it probably won’t take the world by storm as Takk did, it is absolutely the first Sigur Rós album in nearly a decade that demands attention.

The reason for this is simple: their edge is back. It’s immediately discernible in the sneering feedback that ushers in “Brennisteinn.” The way the song trudges through a dark minor key, the reverb on Jónsi’s vocal placing him on a windy mountain peak somewhere, and those motherfucking drums—it’s as insistent a call to attention as Sigur Rós have ever sequenced at Track 1. Not because it’s new, but because it’s a recollection of that signature Sigur Rós essence, where they not only have the prettiness but the purpose.

It’s a sound that’s vital and demanding and of course, not totally sustainable; this being Sigur Rós we’re talking about, obviously a fair amount of the album tends towards the peppy, major-chord end of the spectrum. But even when they’re not as outright menacing as they are on “Brennistein,” the production of the record keeps it from going down as cleanly as some of their more blasé efforts. There’s a hiss to Kveikur that manifests as a warped filter on Jónsi’s voice or as a bass riff given blown out distortion; peep the title track, which is drenched in such EQ-busting malice it recalls the almost-industrial pulse of Have a Nice Life, of all people.

The sound keeps things distant in a way that shirks kitsch, or at least calls attention to the gorgeousness of the songs in a new, interesting way. “Ybirford” introduces almost as an interlude, all slow strings and warped vocals, but those warped vocals become a beautiful foil to Jónsi’s sigh as the song blossoms into a moderate anthem. And while we’re speaking of drums, the crashes towards the end have to be on a garbage pail or something, and it fits so well. Never has the act sounded this willing to avoid sounding pretty. It’s as though they adopted the spirit of experimentation found in their previous two records and finally wove it into what they do best, coming up with a sound that’s at once refreshingly original and entirely familiar.

Which ought by all rights make it a treat for fans. Kveikur is a proclamation by Sigur Rós that they haven’t forgotten how to kick. They still know how to attack, in ways that insist you listen rather than exist whether you choose to care or not. As the world had seemingly nearly begun to shift towards the latter, Kveikur is absolutely necessary.

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