I am not ashamed to admit that I am similar in many ways to my father, a man I respect and admire greatly. A quality of his I share is a general excitement for things (be it music, food, or a trail) and the ability to say of those things that they are the best or my favorite with such regularity as to dull the value of those lofty praises. Maybe I ought to use the words with less frequency or, perhaps, plumb the depths of a digital thesaurus for alternatives, but that will have to wait because all I can think about is the new Sigur Rós album. I shall begin by saying that Sigur Rós is by far one of my all-time favorite bands, and that Kveikur–their newest album–is one of the best I’ve heard in as long as I can remember, rivaling Random Access Memories and The Afterman. The issue really stems from the fact that all of these albums are so fundamentally different that they can’t be fairly compared to each other. Each is, in its own right, the best album I’ve heard in a very, very long time. The last year has been especially good for music, in my opinion.
To business: Iceland’s Sigur Rós has produced their trademark etherial, ambient post-rock since 1994, joining Björk as one of the most fantastic exports Iceland has to offer the world. (Seriously, Iceland. You make amazing music.) After taking a brief hiatus, Sigur Rós have released two albums in two years despite a change in their staffing, but that change shows itself in the tremendous difference between Kveikur and Valtari (the first of the aforementioned albums.) Kveikur is darker, more percussive, and slightly more tribal than any of Sigur Rós’ earlier work. From just a glance at the album cover (above,) there is a sense of darkness, and that feeling carries through the album but in no way impinges upon Sigur Rós’ ability to produce incredibly beautiful soundscapes that give goosebumps to the listener. In fact, the darkness creates a greater sense of contrast, granting even more weight to the fluctuations in the music. There are beautiful string arrangements, high-pitched vocal melodies, catchy rhythmic sections, and everything fans have grown to expect from Sigur Rós, but Kveikur is in many ways a departure for the band, and it is one that I appreciate greatly.
I had the chance to see them in San Francisco recently and heard them play a few of the tunes live and they hit hard. In fact, I can distinctly recall saying to a friend “man, I wish they’d play more of that” and being met with exuberant agreement. The music is just as beautiful a painting as ever, but it’s as though a new set of colors has been introduced, increasing the variability of the music and offering that much more depth to the listener.
The album opens with Brennisteinn, and from the first note is a perfect example of the darkness that I mentioned earlier. The song is dominated initially by a heavily distorted bass and intricate-yet-simple drum accompaniment with a drone woven of strings and bowed guitar supporting the full voice of Jónsi. The chorus is beautiful and I find that it, more than any other section of the album, is what I’m singing under my breath when the album isn’t playing. The song moves into a more “traditional” Sigur Rós sound, but it is a beautiful balance for the intensity of the rest of the tune. The strings are wonderfully arranged, and the vocals are, as usual, haunting and lovely. The song reaches an epic climax that combines the main vocal elements of the etherial section and the chorus, eventually receding into a scratching and heavy set of sounds atop smooth strings and horns, a juxtaposition that totally works and is familiar to fans of this particular group.
Hrafntinna opens with clanging, strings, and horns cacophonously making their way into a sensible unity which is soon taken over by another excellent vocal melody. Another beautiful song, as every other on the album. The percussive clanging sounds like (and probably is) a mixture of found instruments–pots, pans, signs, and the like–and a traditional drum-set. It climbs in a similar fashion to Brennisteinn, the pinnacle achieving that wonderful height that gives me goosebumps.
Ísjaki is one of the singles Sigur Rós released prior to the album and is predictably one of the more accessible and familiar sounding songs on the album, which in no way detracts from its beauty. An excellent song all around, complete with a very catchy chorus. Yfirbor>, which follows it, is another short tune with more of a processed electronic feel that is, to me, very reminiscent of a song from () (their untitled record) which I can’t name from memory. Stormur, which comes after Yfirbor>, also reminds me of a song from (), but that may be the piano melody coupled with the vocals. Again (and I know I sound like a broken record,) this song is excellent. The arrangements on this trio of songs are truly marvelous.
The title track, Kveikur, is up next and brings back the darkness. This is one of the songs I got to see live, and I was practically winded when they finished playing it. It bears all the trademark features of Sigur Rós’ music, but wraps them within an entirely new framework. The darkness permeates throughout the high-energy song, and propels the song onward, generating a pushing sensation that demands an aural break, in this case in the form of a deconstruction of a few of the sounds present in the song, before finally letting you go. It is a tremendous song. Second to Brennisteinn on the record, in my opinion.
Rafstraumur is a welcome calm that follows the powerful Kveikur. It sounds like songs from Með suð and moves in a way reminiscent of more traditional post-rock songs. Xylophones (or are they Vibraphones?) are used beautifully in the song, and add a nice texture to the crest of the song. Bláflrá>ur feels like a cross between Rafstraumur and Kveikur, containing parts both dark and light, maneuvering deftly between the two, lead by the tone and intensity with which Jónsi leads with his vocals. The album closes with Var, which feels like the end of the album. A great piano melody accompanied by lo-fi strings, bowed guitar, and that’s it. After the journey Sigur Rós takes the listener on in Kveikur, it is a welcome respite and the perfect segue for a return to the beginning of the album.
Kveikur really is an incredible album; one that moved me in a way few albums are able to. Sigur Rós typically has that affect on me, and I loved Valtari, but something about Kveikur seems like a true departure for the band which is something I wholly appreciate as a fan. 5/5