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'Kveikur' by Sigur Ros - could it be that this one record is able to answer that question, what is music?

‘Kveikur’ by Sigur Ros – could it be that this one record is able to answer the question, what is music?

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?

Crystal CastlesCrystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed.  If you’re intrigued, you should be.  Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up.  But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor.  We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.

homepage_large.053aea55As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked.  In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all.  The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums.  Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers.  But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest.  As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third.  You really shouldn’t miss this.

Patrick WolfI’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour.  I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again.  Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed.  And intimate.  In short: a rare joy.

CoexistThis second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about.  The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent.  I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.

GodspeedLike Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger.  At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other.  Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself.  Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.

That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial.  The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect.  You can listen to it by clicking on this.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs. For months now I’ve been meaning to write at length about this album but frankly I’ve just never known how to do it.  I love husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and their expanded brood.  Both their previous albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, are classics in my book in that they have something to say and know how to say it, plus there’s an element of timelessness about the music they make.  However, at first I wasn’t sure about The Suburbs. As others have noted, the band have turned down their histrionics to suit the subject matter of suburban alienation and emptiness, and perhaps this is a good thing as at times this Canadian lot do conjour up an almost evangelical zeal.  But a number of the songs here, particularly in the middle third, seem to end up nowhere – there’s a faint wiff of oh well, we almost got this right, but bugger it, we’ll chuck it on the record anyway.  The Suburbs is long and a cull would have made it closer to extraordinary.  Still, there’s no denying that it’s a very, very fine album, with a good chunk of it comprising intelligent, passionate song-writing – ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’, ‘We Used to Wait’ are just a handful of gems on offer here.  It also expands the band’s musical pallet, even getting a little electro/disco in parts – who’d have thought!

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening. There’s something about James Murphy and his mates that really spins my nipples.  Sure they want to be this decade’s Talking Heads, but it’s the cleverness in the production, the wittiness in the lyrics (despite being someone who loves writing and reading I’m rarely interested in song lyrics, but Murphy sure knows how to engage a listener through word-craft), and the sheer dancability of the beats that make this music impossible to ignore.  This is Happening may as well be titled ‘This Won’t Be Happening For Very Much Longer’ as it’s LCD Soundsystem’s last album and perhaps it’s fair to say that there’s an element of starting to go over old ground here.  However, once this CD find its way into my car it’s near impossible to get the bloody thing out of it again.  Infectious, hilarious, and totally bloody brilliant.

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks. I started my love of Frightened Rabbit with this album and then worked my way back to The Midnight Organ Fight (which apparently is a euphomism for sex – I’ll have to try that out, the phrase I mean).  I know there are many who’ve been following Frightened Rabbit since the beginning who didn’t enjoy this second album as much, but apparently it’s the album the band always wanted to make, so who are we to argue?  It’s noisy, dirty, and at times a bit of a mess, but ultimately it’s a supremely passionate, almost uplifting affair, with every second tune building to a stratospheric conclusion.  Sure all the songs seem to argue that modern relationships are a bit rubbish, and that modern life in general is a bit rubbish (and I have no doubt that it is), but when it’s said with as much blood, sweat and tears as it is on this record, well, turn your back at your own peril.  Go searching for ‘Skip the Youth’ and if you’re not moved, go see your doctor.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You. I wrote about this album back in February, making it clear how much I loved it, and I still play the bloody thing regularly, mostly because it’s dance music with heart and soul (note: it’s categorically not chill-out music).  There Is Love In You deserves to be remembered as a classic of the genre; every track is just so sublimely intelligent – listen closely at what Hebden is doing and you can see why he’s considered a genius.  (I have a hunch that he might also be a bit of a nerd, but that’s no bad thing – nerds of the world unite!)  Put this record on at the end of a summer’s Saturday afternoon, pour yourself a drink, open your French doors and forget about the rubbish modern world that Frightened Rabbit is, well, frightened about, and just watch as your toes start tapping and your heart starts beating just that little bit more solidly.

Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II. Like Four Tet’s album, Crystal Castles’ second spinner is all about intelligent dance music.  The shouty Sonic Youth-esque interludes are still there, but this time around there’s significantly more craft in the actual songs, and indeed they are songs, as much as dance tracks can actually be songs.  There’s been a heap of thought put into this music, and there’s a fair wallop of heart as well (I can sense a theme emerging in this end-of-the-year wrap-up: the head and heart of great music).  Check out ‘Vietnam’, ‘Suffocation’ and ‘Celestica’.  If you’re of a certain age, also go searching for a reissue of ‘Not In Love’, which contains a vocal by Robert Smith from The Cure – you’ll be gelling up your hair into gothy spikes within seconds.  Amongst all the thought and heart there’s an ugliness here, as if over the last couple of years this Canadian duo (there’s such good music coming from Canada at the moment) has been wandering the earth finding cities that, like most hospitals, aren’t really fit for human living.  Ultimately, however, amongst this ugliness there’s beauty to be had, it’s just that it’s a hard beauty, an honest beauty, and that’s got to be a good thing.  If Crystal Castles make a third album, and let’s pray that they do, and they keep going on this trajectory, then they may well create the dance album of the century.  It’s a big call, but based on what this duo have produced so far it’s not unjustified.

Phil Retrospector – IntroVersion. Like Four Tet’s record, I’ve written previously about Irish remix artist/sonic magician Phil Retrospector and his IntroVersion album – in fact I gushed about it embarrassingly.  But the thing is I still believe every word of it; I recently decided that discovering Retrospector’s IntroVersion and associated tunes, all of which are only available on his website, is the musical event of 2010.  Whilst most of the bands listed above conclude that modern life is just too empty to offer any real hope, there’s a great big wallop of enjoyment to be had here, which is more than ironic considering Mr Retrosepctor acknowledges that this is ‘glass half-empty music’.  The thing is, it’s music that connects, that affects, that moves.  This is what’s good about the modern world (okay, there’s something): having the technology to cherry-pick the best of what’s happened to music in the last fifty or so years, and, using as much skill and intelligence as possible, make something new, say something new, and give your listeners something to chew on into the bargain.  It’s DIY, it’s punk, it’s probably illegal.  It’s one mother of a nose thumbed at the music industry; it says we’re going to make great music no matter what you think.  Call Retrospective’s stuff maudlin, mawkish, melancholic, nostalgic, sentimental, I don’t give a damn – as long as this bloke’s making music as good as this I’m happy to keep having a crack at life.

Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

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If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

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