What is music? It’s a pretty bloody stupid question, especially as music is one of the few things that link us human-types together and runs as a conduit down through the ages. It’s impossible to know if Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros ever ask the question or just go ahead and make music with all they know and feel. On the basis of Kveikur it sounds very much like the latter.
Before discussing the contents of the record, here are a few bits and pieces you might want to know. This is Sigur Ros’ seventh album over 15 years but first without founding multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who left in 2012. It’s hot on the heels of last year’s superbly brooding but divisive Valtari. Why the rush? Perhaps it’s to make the most of the new dynamic. Also, Sigur Ros has now played Madison Square Garden and appeared on an episode of The Simpsons and, ahem, Sarah Brightman’s done a cover of one of their songs.
Is Kveikur – which apparently means ‘candlewick’ – the band’s leap towards U2/Coldplay territory? No, thank Christ, but it is a significant part of their ongoing evolution.
The album opens with the surprisingly muscular and menacing ‘Brennisteinn’, which is based around a bass riff that sounds like someone trying to kill a fairy by squeezing the crap out of its stomach. From there the band makes it way through its usual palette of widescreen peaks and troughs, lifting us up before easing us back down, and then bleeding into the next song. On Kveikur there’s greater variety to Jonsi’s angelic falsetto – ‘Isjaki’ is a fine example – and there’s also more exploration of percussion; ‘Hrafntinna’ sounds like it was recorded in a cutlery factory.
This time around the band also seems more committed to working with light and dark, and it’s the dark that makes Sigur Ros a truly worthwhile proposition: they might do sweet, and glacial, and epic, but when they want to they can lead us into the murky depths. Frustratingly, and despite the cover image of what could be a mask found in a psychiatric hospital (and hence adorn a death-metal record sleeve), Sigur Ros never really takes us over the edge. ‘Yfirbord’, with its reverse-looped vocals, goes close. If only they could find a producer they trust: oh my, Sigur Ros could break our hearts. There’s also a slightly annoying tinny-ness to Kveikur; no matter what system the thing’s played on it does sound as though it was mixed in a supermarket with the fluorescent lights on.
But still, because these guys give a shit, this is an excellent album. ‘Stormur’, all stabbing piano chords and frantic drumming, should fill stadiums and get the mobile-phones held aloft; no doubt ‘Kveikur’ will give the strobes and distortion pedals a work-out; and ‘Blapradur’ manages to be both beautiful and just a touch unhinged before it segues into a chorus most bands would kill for (here’s hoping an outfit like Crystal Castles will mix the thing – the results will tear nightclubs apart). And there are choruses aplenty here; there’s rarely a dud moment or a lull.
So, in some ways, on Kveikur it’s business as usual in the weird but engagingly peculiar land of Sigur Ros, while at the same time the band gets to explore and expand their range. And there’s no denying that Jonsi and co have a renewed sense of purpose, one as an actual rock band. In a world where talent programs such as Idol and X-Factor and The Voice smother us with saccharine tosh, we need our Icelandic mates more than ever. And so that one day we might be able to answer that pretty bloody stupid question: What is music?