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First impressions: Sigur Rós – Kveikur

21/06/2013
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sigurros2013

Everyone’s going about how this is Sigur Rós‘ return to the dark, dissonant waters they sailed on ( ). There’s a lot of talk about how gloomy and industrial Kveikur is, how it’s all harsh, loud noises and muscular rhythms. A complete bizarro universe version of last year’s wonderful Valtari that floated peacefully in dreamy ambience. That’s what the lead single “Brennisteinn” certainly is – over its eight minutes it roars, stomps, thunders and hulks over to a fearsome, frightening degree. It’s a literal monster of a song, born in darkness and out for blood.

“Gobbledigook” did something similar on 2008’s flawed but still somewhat underrated Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Its playful noise was a sign that Sigur Rós was thinking outside its borders, discovering their inner pop band that actually quite loved joy and catchy choruses over ten-minute post-rock anthems every now and then. The rest of the album, however, was largely dressed up in traditional Sigur Rós colours – a few moments of exciting new direction aside, it sounded like Sigur Rós performing Sigur Rós songs. Kveikur is far closer to Með suð than it is ( ), from the somewhat misleading first single to its general sound. At parts, it sounds like Með suð grew some balls. Sure, the rhythm section has made a triumphant comeback and particularly the drummer Orri Páll Dýrason has a greater presence than ever. But outside “Brennisteinn” and the title track, there’s little dark to Kveikur and certainly nothing reminiscent of ( )‘s freeform build-ups. Rather, it’s a group of Sigur Rós rock songs with an atypically prominent rhythm section. Songs that actually sound quite joyous rather than gloomy.

If it’s a return to anything, Kveikur is a return to Sigur Rós as a band unit. All the added bells and whistles in the songs, alongside everything else about their perfectionistic sense of production and songcrafting, have made Sigur Rós sound like a studio unit ever since ( ), a group that builds their songs piece by piece in the studio rather than by acting together as one unit of musicians playing together. Kveikur is the proof in waiting that they are indeed a band, and an incredibly tightly-knit one. Underneath all the cluttering rhythm sections and walls of sound that Kveikur presents are three musicians playing together in the same room for the first time since forever. Maybe that’s why there’s such joy to the album, no matter how po-faced it wants to present itself (look at the cover and the cryptic liner art, for one) – there’s fun in playing as a band and that radiates from Kveikur.

The inevitable comparisons to its counterpart Valtari run as thus (disregarding the obvious, intentional diversion in sound). One, Valtari works better as an album, but Kveikur contains the better individual songs. It’s by no means a disjointed record, but Valtari’s greatest feat was in crafting a genuinely enchanting mood throughout its tracklist that made you believe once again that this band is something otherwordly. However, the emphasis on atmosphere über alles didn’t make the album’s individual moments stand as strong. Kveikur, on the other hand, takes a whole different approach and presents a group of instantly recognisable songs which often reach something special very quickly and very obviously. “Brennisteinn”‘s fury and “Kveikur”‘s chaos meet “Ísjaki”‘s Sigur-Rós-takes-on-The-National indie rock vibes and “Stormur”‘s grandly soaring anthem antics. The one thing common for both albums is the lacklustre finale: Valtari‘s “Fjögur Píanó” and Kveikur‘s “Var” are both ambient, piano-driven pieces that never really amount to much else than fairly forgettable outros, a long way from the general quality of their respective albums.

But where Valtari rejuvenated the magic of Sigur Rós, Kveikur rejuvenates them as a band. It’s not the dark monster people make it out to be: it’s a rhythmically exciting and often charismatically soaring resurgence of Sigur Rós as a dynamic unit. It sounds both like a brand new direction for them as well as a collection of the band’s guises throughout their history. It’s not as mindblowing as you could have expected and it’s not as arresting as its calmer brother from last year, but it’s a strong suite of very good songs that often tap into something brilliant. It breathes a lot of new life into an old dog and at its best moments overtakes the listener. As Sigur Rós are wont to do.

Ísjaki

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