Sound — 9
For someone who's into the sort of bands that I am, 2013 has already been something of a vintage year, with new releases by My Bloody Valentine, Nick Cave, The National, British Sea Power and many more. But these are all albums by established artists who have been around for a decade or more. You sort of knew what to expect. And then come Sigur Ros, releasing the follow-up to last year's "Valtari," and making a complete U-turn while they're at it. Think of Sigur Ros and you think of the balance between glacial ambience and euphoric dream-pop symphonies that's made them manna from heaven for anyone needing to add a touch of widescreen drama or poignance to any soundtrack. Think you haven't heard Sigur Ros? Well, if you own a TV then you probably have. Having said that, I don't want to think about what sort of TV program or film this album would score. Opening track "Brennisteinn" sets the tone for Sigur Ros' darkest, densest and noisiest long-player to date. After a few seconds of oscillating white noise, an ear-splitting bass synth kicks in followed shortly by pounding drums and a cascade of bowed guitar feedback. For 7 minutes it alternates between a cacophonous orchestra of guitar feedback and singer Jonsi Birgisson sounding his most sinister to date, backed by a relentless, distorted beat and Suicide-esque synth bass, dropping down to droning bowed guitar and horns only to pick back up again shortly after. And "Kveikur" continues much in this vein - yes, the band can summon the sound of Beelzebub himself vomiting fire and brimstone (as they do many times) but it's the more serene moments that bookend the chaos that make "Kveikur" such a captivating album. Many have lauded this album as a complete change in direction for Sigur Ros, but that's somewhat wide of the mark. "Hrafntinna" retains pop sensibilities but never really shakes the funereal air that defined the band's landmark "()" album, and the likes of Isjaki and Stormur recall "Takk...", the band's breakthrough album of symphonic dream-pop. "Rafstraumur" sees monolithic slabs of power-chord riffing joining the mix alongside gurgling processed voices reminiscent of Jonsi's solo work. And, of course, Jonsi's signature bowed guitar is one of the strongest colours in the album's sonic palette, his ethereal drones and howling feedback making him surely one of the most innovative guitarists of our generation. That's not to say Sigur Ros are afraid to tread new ground, because that's what this album is all about. Yfirbor's slow build-up and surreal pitch-bent voices set the tone before the monolithic title track charges in - with backing vocals that sound like a demonic ritual, a fusillade of pounding, distorted drums and a bass riff that could level buildings, it's possibly the most intense and dramatic thing Sigur Ros has ever recorded, particularly when bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Pal Dyrasson lock endlessly into a muscular groove, whilst screeching violins and feedback spar over the top - it's the musical equivalent of something that only Hieronymus Bosch could have dreamed up.
Lyrics — 9
Jonsi Birgisson's angelic, ethereal falsetto has long been a trademark of the Sigur Ros sound. Singing in either Icelandic or his made-up language Hopelandic (which simply consists of vocal sounds that match the mood of the music), his voice is simply another instrument in the Sigur Ros orchestra. What he is singing has never been important - it's about how he sings it. But on "Kveikur," with song titles that translate into English as the likes of "brimstone," "obsidian" and "electrical storm," his delivery has changed somewhat. Rather than languidly crooning, he howls like a banshee on the likes of "Brennisteinn" and "Kveikur," and belts out his most determined-sounding vocals to date on the remaining tracks. Coupled with the sonic chaos happening underneath, it's a chillingly effective change.
Overall Impression — 9
You get the impression that Sigur Ros needed to make this album like their lives depended on it. After finally reaching the peripheries of mainstream with 2005's "Takk...", follow-up album "Me Su Eyrum Vi Spilum Endalaust" flirted with day-glo folk-pop and fell slightly wide of the mark. After an extended hiatus, 2012's "Valtari" was sparse, ghostly and minimal - a grand album, but far from the return to form some may have been expecting. With the departure earlier this year of keyboard player, multi-instrumentalist and all-round musical genius Kjartan Sveinsson, many began to wonder if the band would ever reach the same heights again. "Kveikur," then, sounds like an album made by a band with something to prove again. Previously, their glacial post-rock has conjured certain images of their native Iceland - panoramic mountain vistas, endless tundra plains, cold, dark winters. But "Kveikur" is the soundtrack to the other side of Iceland - volcanoes casting fire and ash into the winter sky, huge glaciers collapsing into black, storm-churned oceans, and of course the economic collapse and anti-government protests that have ravaged the country in recent years. They say all the best music comes from hard times, and they're right. It says a lot that the powerhouse drumming of Orri Pal Dyrasson, present on only a couple of tracks on "Valtari," is the defining driving force of this album. "Kveikur" is Sigur Ros' most daring album to date, but in many ways also their most accessible. It's chaotic and noisy, but not just as a statement, and is as genuinely emotional a listen as anything the band has done before. To paraphrase "No Country For Old Men," if this isn't the album of the year, then it'll do until another one comes along.