06 18 2013
by BEN BROCK WILKES
When I heard there was yet again a new Sigur Rós record on its way—only a year after Valtari’s post-hiatus return to form—I looked forward to the listening opportunity as I have been accustomed to over the band’s fifteen year history: anxious to be ushered into a cozy dream world by nuanced, pastoral tranquility. The Icelandic trio’s seventh studio record, Kveikur, translates to “candlewick,” an object whose destiny is to combust into hot plasma in order to shine light on nocturnal pastimes. It is with this spirit that fans and newbs alike must approach Kveikur; not as a chance to get lost in the subtle tides of an ethereal daylight as in the past, but to bear witness to a fire forged by fallible humans, a direct assault on darkness fueled by the energy and aggression of the night.
The June sun never fully sets in Iceland—the summer solstice in Reykjavík is this Friday in fact—bringing 24-hour sunlight, during which it is not difficult to imagine your naked bum galloping across amber expanses with a buzz in your ear playing endlessly. By the same forces of nature, winter on the island comes with a thick blanket of impenetrable night through which humanity must persist. Kveikur is this fight for brumal survival; it is what we in more forgiving climates might refer to as a bout with seasonal depression, and what those epically inclined might see as Beowulf’s trial with the shadow monster Grendel. For Sigur Rós, Kveikur is their most gloves-off release to date and they land the punch.
Those devoted to Jonsi Birgisson’s angelic pipes or bowed six-string fear not, little has changed in the band’s means of production, it has only been placed in a new context. Kveikur offers a departure from ambient pacing, strange time signatures, and the more experimental side of their breed of post-rock, but does not abandon the soaring cinematic force that defines Sigur Rós’ songwriting or the raw emotional response that it affects.
Kveikur is the darkest the band has gotten, making use of several minor chords throughout; curiously, it is at the same time the group’s most accessible. A straightforward approach to rhythm and verse-chorus structure is relatively new for Sigur Rós, and it transcends the different feels on the record. The head-nod pop quarter note piano chimes on “Stormur” [Storm] could not be more sonically distinct from the title track’s swirling campfire séance drum pounding, yet they both are more tangible to the casual ear than even Ágætis Byrjun’s hook-sticky “Svefn-G-Englar.” The trio produced the album themselves, eliminating an unnecessary filter on their expression and no doubt contributing to its fluidity.
This sense of being within reach of the songs on Kveikur in a way that their previous recordings do not possess might be due to the fact that this release is the band’s most strongly rhythmic. The off-kilter dirge on “Brennistein” [Brimstone] tips off this adaptation of style. Georg Holm’s bass tones surface from the rollicking ocean storm like bursts of air from a whale’s blowhole. Voicing gritty steering pulses instead of simply providing structure, the bass rises from deep ocean currents to the surface—so turn your subwoofer up. Likewise, Orri Dyrason provides drums that are more full in sound and present throughout songs than we’re used to. Beats are more dance-oriented than before without breaking stride—“Yfirbord’s” [Surface] utterly club boom-bap somehow doesn’t feel out of place.
It’s rewarding to see talented musicians push their comfort zones, especially when they’re going on 40. Bands in it for the long haul will commonly release a darker or more direct record, but it’s rare that those directions are combined in the sort of visceral expression on Kveikur. This bold move is especially impressive considering Sigur Rós’ steady climb in commercial success post-Ágætis Byrjun,distinguishing them from fellow second-wave post-rockers Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai, who each released a ho-hum record in 2011.
Hearing Jonsi’s voice transform from angel to demon is a spectacle and listening to orchestral horns and strings change hands from cherubs to ghouls is refreshing, if not a sign of the times. As always, I wish I could understand the lyrics, but that’s never been and still isn’t really the point—it’s enough to know that “Isjaki,” the song off the album you’ll probably be hearing in coffee shops and restaurants the rest of the summer, means “Iceberg.”
There’s something anachronistic about Sigur Rós’ music, maybe due to the use of such an old world language as Icelandic, or maybe because it moves beyond ideas of modernity to dish out something simultaneously raw, traditional, and pop. That’s why Kveikur’s directness works so well; it falls in the line with the unabridged emotional delivery that was always present in their body of work. That, partnered with the space for imagination that darkness provides makes for a record that’s not difficult—in fact, “easy listening” might be appropriate—but invites you to challenge yourself if you so choose. [B+]
Ben Brock Wilkes, Featured, Sigur Ros