Sigur Ros, 'Kveikur' (XL)

8
Kveikur
Critical Mass
Release Date: June 20, 2013
Label: XL

by Barry Walters

How does one update beatific art-rock weirdness now so culturally engrained that it longer seems weird? Sigur Rós have been answering that crucial question ever since 1999's milestone Ágætis byrjun floated over from Iceland to an unexpectedly receptive world. They minimized their lyrics on 2002's ( ), inched toward accessibility via 2005's Takk…, went folky with 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, and maximized their restraint for last year's Valtari.

That last move may have prompted the subsequent exit of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, the guy with formal training who'd arranged their strings and played much of the non-rock instrumentation that made all that orchestral splendor possible. It's an exit that nearly brings Sigur Rós back to the pre-Sveinsson trio that produced their Icelandic debut, 1997's embryonic and relatively skeletal Von. Since then, they've gained not only a far more accomplished drummer, Orri Páll Dýrason, but also a formidable reputation as faithful practitioners of the most radical, singular din to have found a mass cult following this side of Public Enemy and Skrillex.

Given the recent personnel loss and Valtari's cooler response, it's a relief that Kveikur is so utterly startling. Immediately, "Brennisteinn" heralds a split from what went before with jackhammer blasts of digital distortion atop slowly crawling, routinely skipping beats that emphasize that rupture. Except for the fact that Jónsi Birgisson's overdubbed harmonies are still sung in Icelandic, they don't sound particularly foreign here; but the new, extreme elements of Sigur Rós's familiar symphonic rumble ramps the carnality sky-high. No matter how many super-producers that pretenders like Coldplay acquire, they will never sound this unsettlingly grand.

In the absence of English and most other commonly understood reference points, critics always resort to wintry analogies to grasp at this band's innate abstraction. Translations of the song titles here suggest this might be the Iceland-centric concept album these boys have always had in them: They are, in sequence, "Sulfur," "Obsidian," "Iceberg," "Surface," "Storm," "Kindle," "Electric Current," "Thin Thread," and "Was." Bearing one of the band's loveliest and most overtly hummable melodies, "Hrafntinna" (a.k.a., "Obsidian") is animated by clanging percussion that indeed suggests waves of rattling, volcanic glass. In contrast to the band's largely cosmic catalog, the whole of Kveikur is emphatically earthy.

The hole Sveinsson that left behind clearly challenged the remaining three band members to fill it with something besides keyboards. This they do alongside symphonic composer/conductor Daníel Bjarnason (who arranged the strings) and Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson (who last handled the brass on Takk), but mostly, there are just sharper, more structured tunes driven home by far more bass and drums. This is, by a long shot, the group's most propulsive, primal outing, and it grounds the fact that there's naturally more of Birgisson, too: His howling "ooo-woo-hoo" hooks on "Ísjaki" (“Iceberg”) and "Rafstraumur" (“Electric Current”) are like the anchoring English fragments on K-pop hits, yet he's often elsewhere in the mix, as well, growling in a lower register in keeping with the album's gravity-bound concerns, particularly on the grinding title track, which is defined by subterranean waves of lumbering bass bellows.

It's initially unnerving to witness indie's most celebrated airy faeries butch it up, but the result ultimately satisfies their what-the-hell-do-we-do-next dilemma better than any record since Ágætis byrjun, because it compliments what the band has always done best with what we (and possibly even they) didn't know they could do: In their own highly idiosyncratic way and without compromising one iota, the ultimate post-rockers are rocking the fuck out.

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