June 18, 2013 in Album Reviews
By Zachary Kaczmarek
If the common belief that music is in fact a universal language which is capable of bridging the gap between cultures, race, and status is correct, then Sigur Rós are worldwide ambassadors for an art that knows no bounds. Despite their lyrics being written and sung in Icelandic, the bands native language, there has been no disconnect or lack of understanding between listeners who cannot speak the language and compositions that are gushing with relatable emotion. Whether the music has been dingy and full of gloom, or captured a beautiful moment of pure ecstasy, the Icelandic post-rock outfit has perfected the art of transferring unfiltered emotions into well drawn out masterpieces. Their 7th studio release, Kveikur, or Candlewick in Icelandic, takes the best moments of past releases and rolls them into a record that’s rough around the edges and hits harder than anything they have attempted.
The bands previous release in 2012, Valtari, could be summed up as slightly vanilla, and even though it possessed the typical minimalist Sigur Ros sound, which is in at a class of its own at this stage in their career, it lacked excitement and spontaneity. But rather than take a break between albums to further tweak their sound, the band releases Kveikur, an album that is the antithesis of Valtari and expresses more aggressive tones at a more active pace than Sigur Rós songs typically develop at. The album opens with “Brennisteinn” (Brimstone), an industrial inspired song which forms at quite quick pace for a band that prefers slowly layering musical elements. A compact whirring synthesizer and forceful drum beats opens the song, as frontman Jónsi takes the lead with his high reverb Jimmy Page violin guitar playing style (using a cello bow across the strings) and strong falsetto vocals. Most of the album follows a similar pattern of musical activity, as there are not many moments that lull or coast along.
But the album is not all centered around bleak expression, as songs like “Isjaki” (Iceberg) and “Stormur” (Storm) use uplifting bittersweet guitar rhythms, piano lines, and vocal harmonies that create lighthearted textures which allow darker themed tracks like “Kveikur” (Candlewick) to have a greater impact. This is when Sigur Rós is at their finest, being able to express distraught and pent up feelings, but to have the sense not to overdo it and turn the album into an emotional bludgeoning. As with their universally acclaimed Agaetus byrjun, released 14 years ago this month, the joy in the music can be found in the details and the contrast between the tender and soothing, and the disruptive chaos. Some of the most enjoyable audiophile moments take place when a song that was nothing more than a perfect drum fill and Jónsi’s vocals morphs into a runaway train that crashes, complete with turbulent banging of cymbals and loudly contained walls of guitar and bass. The band also has the perfect touch when ending these whirlwind moments, bringing all the hyperactivity to a calm soothing halt.
There is surely a more aggressive and less minimalist approach on Kveikur that focuses not on creating a delicate slow building or blossoming moment, but an angry and feverishly controlled mass of sound. Kveikur has it melancholic and pretty moments that leave the ear in awe, but more often than not the general mood is brooding and beautifully destructive. This unexpected change of direction shows why they are the best in their genre and perhaps one of the best in music at capturing a wide array of emotions and unleashing it simultaneously in loud dulcet sounds.
Essential Cuts: “Brennisteinn”, “Hrafntinna”, “Isjaki”, “Kveikur”, “Bláprádur”