Knee-jerk reaction: What the hell happened in a year?
It’s been merely a year since Icelandic post-rock outfit Sigur Rós released the exquisite, shimmery, atmospheric Valtari, their first in a four-year period. Yet the mood between it and this year’s new release Kveikur could not be more different. Playing the two back to back is like listening to the brightest of days followed by the darkest of nights. The amazing thing is that this is the shortest span of time ever between Sigur Rós albums. What could possibly have caused such a dramatic shift in mood, tone and atmosphere in that short time?
Just so you aren’t confused with where I’m going with this—Kveikur is incredible. One of their very best. It’s just that there has to be a story behind this that we’re not being told.
Yes, I’m aware that this has been a big year of change for the band—most notably that since Valtari was released, they lost their long-time keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson and became a trio rather than replacing him. They also switched record labels. But these events on the surface wouldn’t seem to be enough to create such drama in their sound. But the change is unmistakable. Within the first 30 seconds of opening track “Brennisteinn,” it’s obvious that Sigur Rós is about to take us on a much different journey than before. The atmospherics are certainly there—the long, droning pitches, the heavy reverb, and even Jónsi’s airy vocals over the top—but there is also a heavy, dark dissonance throughout: industrial rhythms, distorted bass lines, and clashing chord progressions conveying haunting mental images of storminess and desolation.
The pattern remains consistent throughout Kveikur. Whether it is the raucous sounds and rhythms of the title track, or the minimalism of “Yfirboro”, or the desolate piano of closing track “Var”, this dichotomy between sparkle and chaos can be heard, almost like a war raging between the two—and yet, there is such creative brilliance and beauty within it all that I find it difficult to pull away.
Who can tell why the band took such a different tack with this album? They don’t really have to explain themselves; the mystery sort of adds to the fun of it, anyhow. Perhaps the departure of Sveinsson impacted them more than we thought; maybe they just wanted to prove that they could do more with less, or perhaps they felt that even a band with their range could get into a rut or be pigeonholed, and they wanted to shatter that illusion. Whatever their reasons, with Kveikur, Sigur Rós have broadsided us with some of their most brilliant and creative work so far.