Sigur Rós: Kveikur – review


By now, seven studio albums in, you probably know where you stand on Sigur Rós. Fans who flock to them when one of their tracks is used in a film or a TV documentary trailer rejoice in having discovered music of elemental beauty – and considerable mystery, given the language barriers that tower between Iceland's second-most-famous musical export and their more anglophone listeners. When he's not singing in his native Icelandic, frontman Jón Þór Birgisson (aka Jónsi) emotes in a tongue of his own devising known as Vonlenska (Hopelandic).

Sceptics, meanwhile, object to Sigur Rós's amorphous meandering and this very barrier: their intent is not explicit. Their 2002 album was entitled (), a void between two parentheses, which, for the haters, pretty much summed up the band. But the Sigur Rós debate itself remains narrow and frustrating. Much of what has been written over the years about Jónsi, bassist Georg Hólm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason – now reduced to a three-piece with the significant departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson – invokes the usual elements of geysers, volcanoes and ice (and the tiresome pixie thing, which has also dogged poor Björk since moment one), bogging down more nuanced discussion of their themes. Personally I absolutely adored 1999's Agætis byrjun at the time. There is nothing wrong – indeed, there is plenty right – about made-up languages and music that rocks tectonically, soundtracking internal weather patterns as it goes. But every record since Agætis has squeezed Sigur Rós's one musical idea – Jónsi's cryptic falsetto, soaring over crescendos wrested from bowed guitar – dry.

For others, though, that one idea has continued to bear majestic fruit, season after season. After a decade of progress towards the mainstream, Sigur Rós's last album, last year's Valtari, took the band far deeper into ambience than they'd been since their first couple of records, Von (Hope) and Agætis byrjun (A Good Start). Kveikur (Candlewick) is, then, a seismic event in the timeline of the slimmed-down SR. It's not a departure from natural phenomena – there are tracks here called Iceberg (Ísjaki), Obsidian (Hrafntinna) and Brimstone (Brennisteinn) – but from the endless, surging loop of waftiness in which bittersweet filmic denouements can unfold.

They've gone all black metal; well, a little bit, anyway. The title track is a sinister, low-slung grind of backwards-sounding instruments strafing scorched earth. Jónsi sings in his lower register, adding real menace to his repertoire for the first time. Brennisteinn (Brimstone) is even more malevolent, as though making the point that medieval notions of hell probably derived from volcanic activity. You almost want to punch the air: at last, something from Sigur Rós that isn't just a comfy soundbed.

The problem is, they don't really seem to mean it. Brennisteinn is followed by Hrafntinna, an elegant tune spangled with shimmering percussion and aching with stately distant brass. Kveikur, meanwhile, is followed up by Rafstraumur, as pretty and poppy a tune as Sigur Rós have ever written. Blithe "ba-ba-ba"s and "ooh-ooh-oohs" make for a sing-along chorus. Having flung open the doors to the underworld, Sigur Rós hastily shut them again. Forget all that boiling lava: look, there goes a pixie.

Ísjaki, meanwhile, is as catchy a song as Sigur Rós have ever penned and will soundtrack every missed goal, every whale-pod journey, every sunshine-through-rain moment on every TV trailer well into 2014. Kveikur is the definitive album fans of Sigur Rós have wanted the band to make since 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, and then some. The trouble is, much of it still sounds about as vital as Coldplay Babelfished into Icelandic.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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