When a band has become established over the course of a half dozen albums or so, you think you know what to expect from them. Anberlin’s albums will always be filled with youthful earnestness. The National will always stuff their songs with enough heartbreak to make you doubt humanity. Over-the-top, frenetic ambition is the name of the game when it comes to Muse. The details may shift and change, but for bands that have made a name for themselves, the core still remains the same. Because of that, I wholly expected the new Sigur Rós album, Kveikur, to be filled with a collection of ethereally beautiful songs of which I couldn’t understand a single word.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
This is Sigur Rós like they’ve never been before. In this case, the details are still there. In places, you still hear the swirling strings. Singer Jónsi Birgisson still croons in his otherworldly falsetto, but the foundation has changed utterly. Gone is the unrestrained joy and happy frolicking from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The peaceful, almost frigid ambiance that made previous album Valtari so gorgeous? Yeah, you won’t find that here. Those slow and steady crescendos that defined so many of Takk‘s tracks? Nowhere to be found.
For the first time in a very long while, this is a Sigur Rós album that is completely unexpected and surprising. You can hear metal influences in this album. This, from the band famous for “Hoppípolla.”
One of my friends once joked (and not at all incorrectly) that a good portion of Sigur Rós sounds like “whale music.” If that’s the case, then this is the scene after the whale hunt, when the gentle giant has been harpooned within an inch of its life. Blood is in the water. Death is hovering nearby. And this is not a peaceful swansong. No, this is a dying battle cry. Aggression – dark, malevolent, and wholly violent – is the prominent emotion here.
From the opening notes of first track “Brennisteinn” (English translation: brimstone. Did I mention that this is not a happy album?), it’s obvious that this is not the Icelandic post-ambient band that we’ve grown to know and love. “Brennisteinn” is heady and filled with swirling guitars and grating static, so much so that when it breaks free halfway through the track with Jónsi’s signature soaring vocals, it’s almost a relief. The storm has broken, you think…until we’re back in the darkness for the track’s closing.
There are flashes of the old Sigur Rós in the tracks here, like the upbeat rhythms in “Ísjaki” and the delicate piano and strings in album closer “Var.” These brief moments only work to showcase just how different this album is. They are breaths of fresh air before the dark waters suck you back down. Instead of the reverse being true, it’s the one gorgeous piano ballad that sticks out among the rest of the tracks, with their jagged guitars, gnarly vocal distortions and crashing drumbeats.
Even when there’s a track that sounds like a traditional Sigur Rós song, there’s still something wholly different about it. The thin, fragile opening of “Rafstraumur” sounds like it could be a song that came off the joyous Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, but there’s an underlying urgency that makes this track less exuberant and more desperate.
Percussion, so notably absent throughout much of Valtari, is one of the main players in this new version of Sigur Rós. “Brennisteinn” has hints of krautrock in it. “Stormur” has a beat that almost sounds like it could come from a drum machine. Standout track “Hrafntinna” has a wholly metallic feel to it, courtesy of clanging, dissonant chimes that resonate throughout much of it. “Machine gun drums” was never a phrase I would have expected to describe a Sigur Rós song – until “Bláþraður,” with its wailed vocals reminiscent of the long-gone Ágætis byrjun, came along.
So, if this is a totally new Sigur Rós, is it an improved one as well? I can’t say that, because I consider Takk and ( ), utterly traditional by this band’s standards, to be two of the best albums in any genre from the past decade and a half. But Kveikur is just as fantastically beautiful, albeit in a wholly different way. It sweeps you up and sucks you in. It’s mature, it’s dark, it’s almost overwhelming, and it’s completely unexpected. And when it comes to this album, those are very, very good attributes.