Review by Matthew Osborne
I got quite excited about this album, when early press releases claimed it marked a return to form for Sigur Rós. Excited enough to order the big megatron jumbo copy from the band’s website – the version with an extra disc and T-Shirt.
So excited, in fact, I managed to overlook the image of a hooded character not dissimilar to a KuKlux Klan member in full regalia, which graced the album’s cover. An image that’s consequently been emblazoned upon my chest whenever I wear my special edition shirt out and about in public.
Some time after clicking the ‘buy’ button I realised my folly but managed to console myself with the fact that, if the album was Sigur Rós‘ return to the sort of form they showed on Agaetis Byrjun or ( ) that critics were saying it was, then I would have nothing to fear. The album would undoubtedly be a hit and the album cover would be recognised, for the right reasons, by millions.
But the day I got to listen to Kveikur for the first time proved to be a slightly edgy one for me, faced with my wardrobe related predicament.
As the record rumbled into life and the dark machinery that drives opening track, Brennisteinn, began its all consuming stomp across whichever barren wilderness that Sigur Rós create, I felt hopeful and started mentally picking out jackets that would show off my new T-Shirt most engagingly.
Hrafntinna followed, with percussive jangles that brought to mind an image of drummer Orri Páll Dýrason sitting amongst the stalagmites and stalactites that have claimed the surfaces of a long forgotten cave, summoning Thor with the Norse God’s own hammer. The chorus was a powerful and dramatic display of how affecting Sigur Rós‘ inimitable musical expulsions can be.
Orri Páll Dýraso’s contributions to this album are perhaps the most crucial. Having lost their keyboardist, Kjartan Sveinsson, last year, Sigur Rós have had to re-evaluate their sound. Dýraso has clearly taken the helm and given the band’s new style something ferociously menacing in places. The title track, too, boasts a vertiginous bass line and drums far too explosive for a band who often find themselves lumped in with the chill out crowd.
However, I found myself checking that the jackets I was choosing had working zips on the front when I first got irritated by the number of cooed oo-ee-oo‘s Jónsi managed to fit into an average verse.
Critics have praised the return of Jónsi to the forefront, arguing that his voice was not put to good use as mere textural accompaniment on last year’s Valtari. But I disagree, having always found Jónsi’s vocals to be most moving when they sound like an instrument. It is usually easier for me to believe that he is another instrument because he is singing words I can’t understand. But it is obvious for many of the tracks that he is singing about something, and this is where my problem with Kveikur lies.
Many of the tracks on Kveikur are very obviously songs, as opposed to pieces of music. And Sigur Rós are one of those bands whose sound was so unusual to begin with that they became widely praised as groundbreakers. Their sound is unmistakeable and this is how they rose to fame. Then they discovered something that works and spent years trying to distill the essence of their music into radio manageable little chunks.
Sigur Rós were at their best when they lacked the conformity to ideas such as form or music, when they lacked that songwriting knowledge that you need in order to craft a radio smash or get your songs onto nature documentaries. When they were marooned in Iceland they created what came naturally to them, rather than what they knew people wanted.
It is unusual thing to criticise something for being too crafted, but with the imperfections and the inexperience come those little moments of magic that you put in there because it feels right to you at that moment.
Where Kveikur fails to hit the spot is in its refusal to do what it threatened to do during the build up to its release; to explore the dark and epic side of Sigur Rós that made the second half of an album like ( ) so thrilling and totally captivating. It teeters on that edge at times, and the title track ends with the same devastation that ends ( ), but there is too much radio friendly fluff to create a sustainable mood.
In fairness, Kveikur is a good collection of songs; most of them beautiful, some even overly so – at times I have to bat away images of rabbits and rainbows and lands of magic Elven make-believe. But ultimately Kveikur fails to live up to the menace promised by both its press and disturbing cover art.
I will still wear my T-Shirt, I decided, as when the Rós are good here they are very good. And when they are bad they are still enjoyable. And I’m running out of clean clothes.
Kveikur is out on XL Recordings, worldwide from June 18th.