Sigur Rós - Kveikur

by Steve Rhodes Rating:9 Release Date:2013-06-17

It's been nearly 15 years since Sigur Rós were launched on the consciousness of the world outside of their native Iceland with their extraordinary single 'Svefn-G-Englar' and second album Ágætis byrjun, which had journalists and listeners reaching for their thesauruses, with many settling on 'ethereal', 'glacial' and 'other-worldly', among other superlatives. Since then they have produced a seemingly effortless collection of releases, breaking out into more accessible and sometime pop-friendly territories, often providing the backing for a number of television and film scores, most notably the BBC's Planet Earth, while maintaining their unique DNA throughout. It's welcome therefore to note that their seventh studio album, Kveikur, is a bold departure from their aural template. The warning signs were there to hear during their recent tour; a far more muscular sound and embrace in electronics, balanced against the recent departure of long-standing member and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, which thankfully has not been to the detriment of the band.

The new-found aggression and change in style is evidenced from the off with lead single 'Brennisteinn'. Glitchy, sometime harsh electronics and pounding drums add backing to Jónsi's intense, bowed guitar and deeper than usual vocals. More reminiscent of Jónsi's solo project, with elements of fellow Scandanavians Múm and Mew, it is a rousing, anthemic track and a great introduction to the direction Sigur Ros are headed. The song allows a moment of reflection where Jónsi's falsetto is accompanied by just his guitar, which reminds you of the Sigur Ros of old, but this is a brief, albeit welcome interlude, in a superb opener.

If 'Brennisteinn' shows more brawn, 'Kveikur' takes it a huge leap further. Politely distorted guitars and drums open the track but develop into a sludgier, heavier, repetitive and revolving sound, more like Nine Inch Nails, latterday Depeche Mode, or post-metallists Isis and Red Sparowes. The vocals still ascend in the triumphant chorus but the gaps are filled with all-enveloping, soaring instrumentation, rather than the tradition to leave space, creating a yearning atmosphere. It's a powerful and successful message of intent and definitely the biggest departure on the album.

'Yfirborð' perhaps best sums up the mix of old and new. Led by a patient minor-key organ, low-end bass, bowed guitar and an initially distorted vocal, the song builds slowly, adding buried samples and brass, only to be propelled forward by brief but rapid drumming and heavier samples, before reverting back to starting positions and repeating the formula. It's a nice, uncomplicated song with a kinship to and natural progression from 'Glosoli' from Takk.

'Bláþráður' likewise shows a strong progression while maintaining elements of the past, with guitars that shimmer rather than glide; a lower-key vocal; electronic samples which drift in and out of the track; buried touches of electronics, and rolling drums. The song propels along, with more than a brush of melancholy to accompany it, to a reflective, calm ending. More desolate than the rest of the album, but like all Sigur Ros songs with a strong element of hope.

'Ísjaki' similarly combines optimism and melancholy with a masterful touch. Pounding acoustic and electronic drums, subtle electronics, organ, and delayed guitars support Jonsi's initial lower-end vocal on a song which builds into a euphoric, driving chorus, led by Jónsi's enigmatic falsetto. The use of a slightly screetching sample in the peak of the chorus is a nice addition to the melody.

The pop-leanings of their more recent output are evident here on a couple of songs. 'Rafstraumur' has expansive, rolling drums, fuzzed bass and more forceful guitar, propelling a fairly conventional song into an explosive chorus not a million miles away from Explosions in the Sky in the drum and guitar dynamics. 'Stormur' has a piano-led ascending melody, strings and expansive drumming, mixed with subtle and barely-audible electronics, supporting Jónsi's vocals. Denser and poppier than previous releases, it's the song M83 are trying to drive towards, and an anthemic number we'll be hearing a lot more of in the near future.

'Hrafntinna' is a more relaxed counterpoint to much of the album, with a slower, building pace, but has just as much impact. Percussion à la Bjork, bass drums, subtle brass, and strings which weave in/out but don't dominate, add the platform for Jónsi's gorgeous, multi-levelled vocal to shine. With a whiff of Dead Can Dance in the structure and melody, it is a soaring song which perfectly showcases the development in Jónsi's vocal dynamics. The restrained falsetto that emerges part-way through the song is jaw-droppingly beautiful and will send a shiver down anyone's spine, especially during the emphatic close, where a choral backing provides weighty support. The highlight of an immensely enjoyable album.

With the album closing with the downbeat but poignant and effective 'Var', where a slow piano is accompanied simply by a bowed guitar and organ, Sigur Ros have produced their best album in years and their finest since the heart-wrenching (). There might be nothing quite as dramatic and intense as 'Popplagið' (off ()) or Ny Batteri (off Ágætis byrjun), but with Kveikur, they have produced a beautiful and consistent album, full of surprises, which will please fans old and new. A triumphant return.

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