Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Album Review: Sigur Ros - Kveikur

Album Rating: A
I honestly cannot recall an opener in recent times that's excited me as much as "Brennisteinn:" The strained, distorted build, simmering to a point where it seems set to collapse under its own weight... Those immense, molten slabs of bass, splurging through your speakers, hitting you head-on like a ton of lead bricks... That ominous, foreboding drop, leaving you swamped in violent swathes of bow guitar work... It's an introduction listeners have become accustomed to over the past few weeks, yet familiarity does nothing to dampen the formidable impact once it's set into motion. More significantly, these dense industrial shock waves essentially signal the return of the Sigur Ros we know and love; the lukewarm reception afforded to initial comeback Valtari having barely even been granted time to dissipate. It's almost as though that LP was merely a teaser — a low-key slow-burner devised to curb expectations and whet appetites ahead of the true re-emergence of one of the great bands of our time.

Of course, there's an awful lot more to Kveikur and its surprisingly brisk creation than that, but one factor which has unquestionably had an effect is the departure of multi-instrumental member Kjartan Sveinsson. Although a vital cog in the lineup which yielded Ágætis byrjun, ( ) and Takk... it couldn't be more obvious his departure has had a galvanising effect on the group - the remaining trio having audibly broken from their metaphorical shackles and embarked on adventurous new avenues both sonically and in terms of their songwriting. The end result is the type of record fans have been piping for ever since the conclusion of that golden period, not to mention one which sits comfortably alongside such unfathomable achievements. Far from the false dawn some feared, that gargantuan lead track was a surefire sign that something far bigger was brewing.

There is, however, a twist; that despite ranking among the finest curtain raisers in recent memory, "Brennisteinn" may also be one of the most misleading. Sure, there are times when Kveikur delivers on the "aggressive" promises made during its announcement - the title track for instance sounds like the dense percussive extravaganza Orri Páll Dýrason was promised when he gawped, aghast at his lack of action on Valtari - but by and large its material follows a very different route to that projected. Indeed, rather than a return to the intense gloom of Ágætis... many speculated, this album bears far greater resemblance to the material which marked Sigur Ros' mid-00's mainstream breakthrough, along with the uplifting vivacity of Jónsi's solo work. What it all culminates in is by some way the most immediate and accessible release of the band's career, its treasures packed into a concise 48-minute runtime featuring their most pop-enamoured music to date - yes, even more so than "Hoppípolla."

Some circles still treat "pop" like a dirty word (especially the alternative ones occupied by Sigur Ros) but here these radio-friendly elements represent an unequivocal asset, contributing to a bolder, more direct sound than most of us ever thought we'd hear from the Icelanders. Perhaps the clearest evidence lies in tracks such as "Ísjaki" and "Bláþráður," both of which adapt conventional means into their distinctly unconventional template, with each providing a joyous, euphoric chorus and the latter even using elements of call and response. They're fiercely upbeat and sprinkled with optimism, yet somehow maintain that quintessential, unmistakable Sigur Ros sound, which through all this unfamiliar usage has lost none of its enveloping cinematic magnificence or gripping sense of mystique.

Perhaps this familiarity in spite of everything is above all what makes Kveikur such an easily digestible body of work. This isn't a record you need to absorb in a dark room, sleep to or invest countless hours in to appreciate. In fact, rather than demand such application, this is one which forcibly makes itself heard; one that's in equal measure measure ambitious and comfortable in its own skin, and above all one that's a pleasure for we mere mortals to explore. It's taken eight years and two awkward interludes to recharge their batteries, but any lingering fan frustrations will surely ebb away the moment this latest masterpiece creeps enticingly into earshot.


Kveiker is released on 17 June. You can stream the album in its entirety here.


1. Brennisteinn
2. Hrafntinna
3. Ísjaki
4. Yfirborð
5. Stormur
6. Kveikur
7. Rafstraumur
8. Bláþráður
9. Var

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