For all of Sigur Rós’ idiosyncrasies involving a made-up language and oddball instrumental concoctions, the Icelandic rockers are always a surefire bet to produce beautifully sweeping music. Their sound can alternate from quaint piano accompaniments to swelling orchestras in a heartbeat, which leaves room for the sporadic over-indulgences that come with such an ambitious approach. Sigur Rós often achieve innovation nonetheless with moving arrangements and frontman Jónsi’s piercing falsetto. The indulgences of Kveikur, their seventh studio album, are in darker and more assertive tints, all while showing bursts of the effervescent orchestral tendencies that bought Sigur Rós past recognition. It’s an album with light and dark polarities, but one that achieves resounding success in the dueling approaches and their collaborative kinship.
The first sounds on Kveikur immediately show it as an album quite unlike anything Sigur Rós has attempted before. The crackling and ominous apocalyptic thumps of opener “Brennisteinn” is highly uncharacteristic for Sigur Rós, who are never hesitant to kick things off with a sweeping orchestra or tranquil synth pad. Instead, “Brennisteinn” sounds like a beast awoken from its slumber, its teeth grinding in anticipation with distorted churn and metallic guitar blast. The seven-minute journey eventually finds Jónsi in his dizzying falsetto heights after a somewhat restrained vocal intro. Although they project entirely different languages, one can’t help but recall the psych-rock elements of Os Mutantes, and their ability to combine a wildly unleashed rock sound with components of haunting psychedelia. That reference would seem nuts prior to the release of Kveikur, but there are a lot of firsts for Sigur Rós here, even after seven albums and nearly 20 years of writing music together.
Sigur Rós’ lofty sound will never make them a singles group; their successful singles are more or less tidy representations of their respective albums. The second single from Kveikur, “Isjaki” does a stellar job of representing its general direction. Anthemic percussion marches forward to kick off the track, as a sprightly simplistic guitar line bounces around over Jónsi’s emotive voice, which transitions from a slightly nonchalant lull to falsetto-aided dramatics. The coinciding of keys with additional vocal layers that harmonize with the lead helps build toward a beautifully twinkling hook, which represents an ideal meshing of Sigur Rós’ darker and lighter elements. It’s as if the stadium-ready ominous crawl of “Brennisteinn” merged with previous grandiose orchestral efforts like “Hoppípolla”. Although it treads in both dark waters with forceful tides and a serene tropical paradise with trickling falls, “Isjaki” finds the brilliant form of cohesiveness that Sigur Rós have a knack for, an impressive feat for such an anthemic and intricate sound.
As the album follows such a direction, it makes sense that the self-titled track on Kveikur is the most sprawling representation of Sigur Rós’ darker and more distorted inclinations. The gargling bass combined with Jónsi’s raucously dirty vocals actually makes “Kveikur” sounds more Queens of the Stone Age than Sigur Rós at first, but a sweeping percussive-led bridge at the two-minute mark brings the group’s trademarks back; Jónsi’s vocals launch into a wordless harmonic croon as jagged guitar lines bring forth the group’s most rocking and edgiest delivery yet. There will always be that interlude with Jónsi’s soaring vocals, but apart from that “Kveikur” is a defiant and forceful twist from the Icelandic post-rockers. It will probably make some listeners scratch their heads, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – especially when a band has released as much “comfort food” material as Sigur Rós in their lengthy career.
Indeed, Kveikur is perhaps Sigur Rós’ most adventurous album yet, and with that comes a head-scratcher r two. “Bláþráður” makes good use of Sigur Rós love for contrasts, and in this case the transition from elegant starkness to chaotic undercurrents, but the arrangements are more scattered and overall less effective than equally experimental efforts like the self-titled track and “Brennisteinn”. Still, the number of missteps on Kveikur is miniscule. Even on a track like “Hrafntinna”, which starts out questionably with the repeating of kitchenware-like clanging, the ascent into the cohesion of soaring beauty and jagged distortion can be breathtaking. Sigur Rós are fully aware of their strengths at this point, and with Kveikur they retain them while marching forward on new ground that is dark and somewhat unsettling, but generally more engaging than several of Sigur Rós’ past releases. Even as Kveikur may sound slightly jarring at first, patient listeners will gradually cozy up to both its bold stylistic delivery and inherent beauty, which becomes more apparent with each listen.