Rock Album Review: Sigur Rós’ “Kveikur” — Still Mystifyingly Poetic

In terms of composition, the songs on Kveikur are structured more straightforwardly than those on Valtari, but Sigur Rós remains determined to deny the listener the grand post-rock climaxes.

Cover art for Sigur Rós’ “Valtari”

Post-rock bands have a tendency to become stuck in their ways—album after album repeat the same elegant, deliberate, and tried-and-true minimalist formula ad nauseum. Admittedly, the predictably mild sonic textures often yield brilliantly majestic results. For example, there’s the critical acclaim for the Texas band Explosions in the Sky, now six albums into its easygoing career.

The post-rock formula can no doubt work—Explosions in the Sky’s perfectly pleasant efforts are proof of that. However, one band has consistently strayed from the genre’s blueprint, the Icelandic outfit Sigur Rós. The group’s discography is loaded with experiments, such as its debut, Von, which married post-rock with dark ambient music; its breakthrough LP, Ágætis byrjun, which introduced elements of dream pop; and 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which exhibited a catchy art rock approach.

Sigur Rós has only gotten riskier over time. Though many of its followers are English speakers, the band continues to write its lyrics almost entirely in Icelandic—the remainder of vocals are in Vonlenska, a made-up language by frontman Jónsi. Last year saw the release of the band’s greatest stylistic departure to date, Valtari, a subdued ambient album that was more electronically driven than past efforts, eschewing epic post-rock compositions and climaxes.

Many fans were turned off by Valtari‘s reserved formlessness, and they were surprised, if a bit suspicious, to discover that another studio effort, titled Kveikur, was already on the way. Jónsi hyped the record as being more “aggressive” than Valtari, and he is right.

Cover art for Sigur Rós’ “Kveikur.”

Brennisteinn” starts Kveikur with a bang. A distorted, low-end rumble gives way to a lurching, overdriven groove from bassist Georg Hólm, forceful drumming and metallic clanking from percussionist Orri Páll Dýrason, and Jónsi’s signature contribution, a roaring bowed guitar, which (unfortunately) has been missing in recent albums. The ominous instrumentation offers a nice contrast to Jónsi’s angelic falsetto vocals.

None of the remaining eight songs quite match the exquisite heaviness of the opener, but the title track comes close. A dissonant, manipulated bass loop provides the foundation of the song; Orri joins in with another driving percussion part. Noisy, frantic guitar emerges at the backend of the track, bringing it to a crashing close. Even more disconcerting is Jónsi’s uncharacteristically menacing vocal delivery, easily one of the standout moments on the disc.

Another highlight is “Ísjaki,” which was released as a single along with “Brennisteinn.” Unlike the latter, “Ísjaki” is a relatively catchy and upbeat song, featuring a prominent orchestral string part and what sounds to be a glockenspiel. While the track comes off as much more lively and beautiful than the opener, both tunes share the same lyrical approach to exploring the disintegration of nature and the human body. Kveikur’s lyrics are more direct than those on Valtari and other past efforts, but, that said, they are still mystifyingly poetic.

In terms of composition, the songs on Kveikur are structured more straightforwardly than those on Valtari, but Sigur Rós remains determined to deny the listener the grand post-rock climaxes. For instance, the song “Hrafntinna” sports triumphant brass and string sections that swell and tease at the idea of a climax quite a few times, without ever delivering the promised conclusion. In this sense, Kveikur is just as understated as Valtari, despite its sound being louder and more maximalist.

Sigur Rós — determined to deny the listener the grand post-rock climaxes.

Thus this is not quite the incredibly loud and “aggressive” album that Jónsi hyped it to be—at least not thoroughly. For sure, Kveikur has its intense moments, but there are many tracks here that could just as well have fit comfortably on past efforts. The backmasked vocals and instrumentation at the beginning of “Yfirborđ” sound as though they came straight from Ágætis byrjun. In fact, the entire song sounds like a breezier and slightly noisier interpretation of the material found on the earlier LP. The minimal compositions and upbeat natures of “Stormur,” “Rafstraumur,” and “Bláþráđur” would make them candidates for cuts on Takk… , sans the latter’s climaxes.

Despite these moments feeling a bit too familiar, Kveikur never fully casts its melancholy aside, even when it ventures into poppier territory. Accordingly, the disc does not close on one of its poppier notes; instead, it ends with “Var,” a spacious, gloomy piano piece whose sadness contends with an accumulating layer of dissonant strings. It is emotive, but in direct contrast to the windup of Valtari, which concludes with the magnificent “Fjögur píanó.” The latter transforms a mix of lonely piano notes and orchestral strings into heartwarming and fulfilling music. With “Var,” Kveikur ends on an ambiguous, challenging note—as the lyrics foreshadowed, life just fizzles out.

Kveikur came only a year after the release of Valtari, but it’s clear that Sigur Rós put no less effort into it than its past records. Taken together, these two albums serve up the band’s most concise—yet demanding—music to date. Perhaps the two should be seen as yin/yang discs, dedicated to communicating drastically contrasting moods. While Valtari arguably contains more original moments, Kveikur is no less intriguing as an opposing smoldering artifact from the land of fire and ice.

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