The first few seconds of Kveikur begin with what might be the sound of a powerful yet distant conflagration, low flying fighter jets on a bombing mission, or a handheld recording of a large collapsing building; before slamming in with a colossally distorted bass note that says: as much as the first 20 seconds have been unsettling, something ominous and potentially cataclysmic is now underway.
It’s as far from the life-affirming, positive tropes sometimes associated with Sigur Rós as it is possible to get, and evidence that the band as a three-piece are going through their most profound change since they swapped the nebulous clouds of debut Von for the career-making beauty of Ágætis Byrjun a decade-and-a-half ago.
If you wanted to imagine what a Sigur Rós record without piano might sound like, Kveikur, the band’s seventh studio album, will provide unequivocal answers*. Kveikur is, throughout, defined by a darker, more dystopian mood than the band’s previous ventures, certainly than since the second side of 2002’s ( ). On more than one occasion – the opening ‘Brennisteinn’ and the title track ‘Kveikur’ being the most overt examples – this sense of dread breaks out into thinly-veiled terror.
‘Brennisteinn’ moves the air in a new, blood-quickening way, and is first evidence of a heightened focus on what can be accomplished with drums and bass alone. Everywhere the clattering, explosive, pounding rhythms and distorted, subterranean, modulated bass provide the underpinning for fresh forays into new territories. If once Sigur Rós songs were likened to the slow geological pace of plate tectonics, Kveikur, at its most extreme, feels more akin to the sudden shock of an earthquake.
The departure of keyboard player Kjartan Sveinsson last year, has had the effect of driving the remaining three – singer/guitarist Jón Þór Birgisson, bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason– out of their comfort zone and into a place where reinventing themselves is the only option. The fact that they have written, recorded and released this record a mere year after its beautifully somnambulant (and Kjartan-centric) predecessor, Valtari, says volumes about the band’s new-found creative energy, especially when much of that time has been spent on the road.
Kveikur – Sigur Rós’s first worldwide release on XL Recordings – sounds like a band cutting lose of their own heritage, or at least turning their back on its long shadow. Of course, on many levels it remains definitively Sigur Rós, because that’s what it is. Alongside the more abyssal elements of the album are songs that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most exquisitely melodic music the band has ever made. You might call ‘Ísjaki’, ‘Rafstraumur’ and ‘Stormur’ pop music, if they weren’t so clearly not pop music - unless from some realm unknown.
‘Yfirborð’ incorporates elements of jarring dubstep production into what might otherwise be a rustic ballad. In doing so, Sigur Rós walk a singular path between brutality and beauty. For a band with so many would-be emulators, it is remarkable how inimitable they remain. There is much of Kveikur that you’d be hard-pushed to say sounded like anyone else, ever.
Second track ‘Hrafntinna’ starts with a skittering of gongs and a muted fanfare of trumpets that somehow sounds medieval and modern at the same time. A strange warping effect slowly decays to create a feeling of disorientation. Everything seems both proximate and complex. Above it, Jónsi’s vocal rises and soars like a razor-billed raptor. The song feels both heavy and light, but the light is queasy and wan, and a sense of unease pervades, until finally a warm blanket of brass wraps itself around the song in its very dying moments.
It is possible to write about every song on Kveikur in this hyperventilated way, and hard to resist if one intends to convey the band’s continued difference and their peerless energy for reimagining the possibilities. Kveikur may be the sound of a band bonding in the strongest possible way after a small moment of private grief and, in doing so, finding themselves still further out on their own, but with everything to play for. Some people say Sigur Rós aren’t the same without Kjartan Sveinsson. Some people are right.
* The last track on Kveikur is, in fact, a piano-led instrumental coda by the name of ‘Var’.