Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Forget everything you know about Sigur Ros. Well, most of it. You probably know them as the melodic, dreamy, chilled out Icelandic band famed for their wandering intros and happy, uplifting songs. Not anymore; they’ve turned to the dark side. Where they used to be light and meandering, they’re now intense and focused. Whether this is to do with the slight tweak in their lineup - keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson left earlier this year - or something more fundamental the band are yet to say.
Kveikur is the complete antithesis to 2012’s Valtari. These days it’s unusual for artists to release albums in successive years, even more unusual that they come from very different places. SR have experimented with a more guitar-driven sound before, on 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, but they were in more of a light pop kind of mood then, not brooding like the 2013 version of the band.
Let’s make no bones about it though - this is a brilliant album. Don’t be put off by all the talk of how dark it is, you still know this is the same Sigur Ros. All their ethereal sounds and floating vocals are present and correct, it’s just the noise surrounding them that is unfamiliar. Lead singer and lyricist Jonsi continues with unintelligible lyrics for the most part, whether Icelandic or his own invented Vonlenska language.
'Brennistein' starts off with what sounds like thunder inching ever closer, before breaking into white noise drumming that drives the track on. The faster-than-their-usual-stuff tempo ends with a softer slow outro, the calm after the storm. A clattering of cymbals and slow plod of bass drum introduce 'Hrafntinna', with emotion and depth added by Jonsi, before the coda begins with feedback then plays out with a brass section reinstating a sense of calm.
Less intense is 'Isjaki' a happier, slightly more hopeful song, no scratching feedback or electrical storms here. The slow burning 'Yfirboird' ends as softly as it begins, with the noise crescendo of the middle of the track a distant memory. Whilst 'Stormur' is possibly the band's most accessible tune, with as close as they get to a regular song structure with verse and chorus. It's also one of the most purely enjoyable songs this year.
Once you thin things are looking up title track 'Kveikur' arrives with its sonic assault of drums, fuzzy guitar and ethereal, pained vocals. Again, there's a certain accessibility, but it is an intense piece of work. In complete contrast 'Rafstraumur' is unbridled joy, all the emotional tension of the previous six songs being released in one glorious burst. Instrumental closing track 'Var' is a fitting way to end things, serene in its own ghostly way.
It isn't often that established bands truly surprise; most changes of direction are either superficial or so extreme you may as well be listening to a different band. With Kveikur Sigur Ros have pulled off a dramatic change of direction in fantastic fashion, all the while keeping true to their own sound and feel. A stunning achievement.