What is bound to be the most popular talking point about Sigur Rós’s new album Kveikur is the band’s ability to take a musical trend – the increasing popularity of drone music and post-rock among certain strains of metal fans, say – and make of it something that is, while unusually dark, unmistakably theirs. The band whose beautiful, soaring, inspiring music became the inevitable soundtrack of natural history programmes became seemingly unsure of where to go, as evidenced by last year’s relatively subdued Valtari. Fortunately, the Icelandic trio has now adopted darker musical stylings to create a record that’s every bit as transcendental as their best work.
From the first seconds of opener Brennisteinn, they show a rarely seen side. Nervous, distorted guitars and militaristic percussion and horns complement vocals from Jónsi that aren’t as high-pitched as they usually are, enough to create the impression that he’s suffering as opposed to crying out of some grand, general emotion. Meanwhile, second track Hrafntinna sports crystalline bowl sounds and similarly charging drums, foreboding strings and horns, and more subdued vocals from Jónsi, only adding to the unease that Brennisteinn introduced. By the time Jónsi reaches falsetto midway through the track, they’ve already visited the very bowels of the Earth. Whenever Jónsi contrasts high-pitched with muted vocals on Kveikur, it’s comparatively therapeutic rather than lazily maudlin, the latter an unfortunate characteristic that has pervaded some of the band’s less strong recent releases. Here, the sentimentality is completely gone.
On Kveikur, even the tracks that start off poppy end up dark, a trait that comes across as honest and dynamic rather than relentlessly morbid. For instance, the anthemic Ísjaki features an actual chorus punctuated by howls and Jónsi’s emotive wail, as he’s ultimately drowned out by seemingly countless voices singing along with him. Still, Ísjaki conjures images of cold, epic darkness rather than fleeting glimpses of light, as the track is ultimately reduced to hauntingly minimal piano stabs. And the impressively disquieting scratchiness and glitchiness of the album reaches its apex on Yfirborð, as indecipherable drones eventually give way to a dance beat that backs up both Jónsi and warped vocals from what sounds like the evil twin of the low-autotuned Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend’s Diane Young and Step vintage.
While Sigur Rós has always managed to encounter great popularity in countries whose native tongues are far from Hopelandic (which is, after all, everywhere), it’s remarkable that Kveikur doesn’t emphasize the pure yearning and striking instrumentality of Jónsi’s vocals over the band’s more than capable instrumentation. Instead, Kveikur often finds Jónsi’s vocals taking a back seat to the bigger picture and the intense feelings the band evokes. Stormur, for instance, uses choral vocals, essentially as an instrument, but it also involves beautifully clashing strings and piano. Moreover, Kveikur’s title track is the most cacophonic on the album: it sounds like Jónsi is being swallowed by distorted, machine-like guitars. This track suggests war; Jonsi’s inspirational vocal inflections combined with marching drums creates a sound that would soundtrack a battle rather than footage of vast land formations.
Ironically, the final track of the record is titled Var, even though it sounds more like the peaceful, yet sad aftermath of the battle that has occurred earlier and frankly throughout the album. Perhaps Kveikur’s battle is not outward, but inward: as the bitter cold takes over Iceland and the days darken, the real war rages inside one’s own head. Sigur Rós have created music to soundtrack their own emotional states. Perhaps they’ve unintentionally created a world in which the rest of humanity, too, can seek solace.