(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Recording review - Sigur Rós, Kveikur (2013)

Powerful moments and industrial undertones, but still room for nuance

Members of Sigur Rós describe Kveikur as “more aggressive” than their earlier work and there are new sonic elements of industrial grinding and swells of chaotic noise, but they haven’t forgotten their ethereal roots. While the noisy touches may be compensation for the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, they add an insistent tension that expands the group’s emotional range. That visceral connection is still the key to Sigur Rós’ success. They’ve always stood as an example that emotional openness can trump lyrical meaning. Whether in their native Icelandic or their self-invented “Hopelandic”, the band has largely resisted pandering to their English speaking fans. It’s paid off because Jón (Jónsi) Þór Birgisson’s expressive vocals transcend simple words to reach for grander truths, leaving the specific interpretation to the listener. The new album carries on the tradition with songs like “Isjaki” and its sense of rueful experience, as well as the hopeful reflection of “Stormur.” Older fans needn’t worry, though; despite the noise, there are enough soaring, open moments to prove that the band’s musical core remains whole.

The windy, crackling static at the start of “Brennisteinn” creates an expectant moment before the song lurches forward with rhythmic, body-blow punches. With a Pink Floyd melding of bass grind, howling guitar and Jónsi’s inspiring vocals, the song taps into an epic, post-rock power source. The rumbling percussion and rattling bass tones suggest a leviathan remorselessly crawling forth into the world. The roiling storm of sound showcases Sigur Rós’ new direction, but they deftly reconnect with their thoughtful side when the thunder bows out to leave a pensive, reflective interlude. Where Jónsi’s voice had settled into a lower register, now he sweeps into his bruised, falsetto range. The transition from tumultuous crescendo to the eye of a storm is reminiscent of My Morning Jacket. The pause is quickly overtaken by an insistent beat and psychedelic haze. The final section of the song slips away into a dreamy reverie with long tolling notes and noisy swells of intruding feedback.

“Brennisteinn” is a strong opening salvo for the album, immediately raising the question of whether the band would push on into more bombastic extremes or settle back into their normal comfort zone. They feint towards tradition as the second track, “Hrafntinna”, carries on the dreamy feel with loose jangles of percussion. These quickly coalesce into a moody progressive rock that blends Porcupine Tree and Radiohead. Clashing chimes and buzzing cymbals provide an industrial undertone. Sigur Rós take the song out on a warm, orchestral horn line. Dynamic shifts like this recur throughout Kveikur, offering a yin-yang energy; floating vocals tame the heavier sections while cathartic cacophony provides an edge during calmer pauses. While the band has always balanced soft moments with greater energy, the group’s embrace of chaotic texture accentuates the contrast.

If the opening song pushes forward with a confrontational energy, the title track holds the second half of the album together with a relentless, compelling power. Distant ship horns sound through the fog as grating factory sounds are looped into a rhythm. Jónsi’s initial vocals are like a spaced-out, bluesy, Icelandic cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”, mutated with reverse reverb and echo. Orri Páll Dýrason’s driving, tribal back-beats propel the hypnotic groove into something like Adrian Belew’s “Big Electric Cat”. The droning, heartfelt vocals hover over a thick, wooly sound. Swirls of noise wind through the percussion like smoke, accented with prickly rasps and whining guitar feedback. The song builds to a frothy climax; then it dissipates into an ambient freefall of bass-heavy resonance.

After the weight of “Kveikur”, Sigur Rós breaks the tension with crystalline perfection at the start of “Rafstraumer”. Despite its relative brevity, the song feels epic. Just shy of five minutes, it moves from simple clarity to driving rock and then builds into an emotive anthem before melting into soft introspection. This feeds into the barren spaciousness that starts “Bláþráður”, which makes its own trek from gentle assertion to an operatic bombast before fading back down to its austere opening. The album closes on a minimalist meditation as echoes shine through on the instrumental lullaby, “Var”. The querulous piano melody is a far cry from the assault of “Brennisteinn”, reminding everyone that the band still appreciates the nuanced moments that they’ve created in the past.

If any of Sigur Rós’ new clashing dissonance reflects personnel conflicts associated with Sveinsson leaving the band, then they’ve channeled that stress into a vibrant creative vision that reinvigorates their sound. There’s little on this album that could be relegated to background music, but it still delivers the emotional payload of their earlier material. Coming fairly quickly on the heels of their 2012 album Valtari, Kveikur reassures their audience that the band hasn’t lost momentum trying to regroup.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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