I’ve read several pieces about Kveikur that describe it as Sigur Rós’ “metal” album. Indeed, the band themselves fomented this opinion, having described Kveikur as “more aggressive” than their previous releases. And when the album’s material began surfacing on the interwebs — via, for example, a concert video of the band debuting the album’s first single, “Brennisteinn” — “metal” seemed a rather appropriate term for the heavier and more raucous sounds the trio were now exploring.
However, longtime fans of the band shouldn’t be at all surprised by the trio’s “new” sound: Sigur Rós have been exploring loud n’ heavy since the very beginning. There’s Von’s distorted and tortured “Hún Jörð” (incidentally, the first Sigur Rós song I ever heard). “Dánarfregnir og jarðarfarir” (from the Ný Batterí single) was all doom-laden and psych-drenched organ. And let’s not forget the final searing minutes of ( )‘s “Popplagið” or, for that matter, Takk…‘s “Sæglópur.”
But even if Kveikur’s sound is not without precedent, it’s still exhilarating stuff. “Brennisteinn” remains as monstrous and over-powering as it was when I first heard it last November, with Jónsi Birgisson’s angelic voice and bowed guitar melding perfectly with Orri Dýrason’s pummelled drums and the song’s distorted electronics. The title track moves in a similar direction, with ghostly vocals bursting through static and Jónsi’s voice surfing a tidal wave of guitars and percussion. Those may be the two most obvious examples, but there are similar flourishes throughout the album, like the distended vocals or extra clattering that ricochets around inside “Hrafntinna” or the guitar squalls on “Ísjaki“ ‘s chorus.
But I keep coming back to “Brennisteinn” and the title track, and after numerous listens since the album’s release in June, I think I’ve finally realized why. Throughout their nearly 20 years, Sigur Rós has adopted numerous musical personas. The cherubic lads whose orchestral post-rock on Ágætis Byrjun sounded like, as Melody Maker put it, “God weeping tears of gold in heaven.” The hippies who wrote folksy ditties on Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. The band that brought their homeland’s myths into the modern age with (the sadly still unreleased) Odin’s Raven Magic and their collaborations with rímur chanter Steindór Andersen.
But Kveikur, and those two tracks in particular, reveals the persona that I love best: that of a band that channels something truly wild and unpredictable, full of harsh, alien beauty as frightening as it is illuminating. And frankly, it’s one I haven’t heard in quite awhile. It’s not surprising to me that Sigur Rós should release music like this after the departure of Kjartan Sveinsson, the talented multi-instrumentalist who had been responsible for many of the band’s lush, elaborate string arrangements. Minus his gloss and polish, Sigur Rós is now essentially a power trio, and though Kveikur still has plenty of strings, horns, etc., it’s ultimately a leaner, meaner product.
Kveikur is the sound of a band rebuilding themselves. There’s a sense of desperation and urgency to the album, a drive into some uncharted territories — and it’s a treat to be along with them for the ride. In some ways, I feel like I’m hearing them for the first thrilling time, and after nearly fifteen years, that’s a true pleasure.