this hard-hitting, true-to-life album soars from darkness to light
-4 out of 5-
after a lengthy hiatus, the enigmatic icelandic band sigur ros recently returned to the music scene with the one-two punch of valtari (2012) and kveikur (2013). though both albums were released in late spring / early summer, they could not feel like more different seasons. if valtari’s soft, drifting sound found inspiration in the sleepy ambience of lead-singer jonsi’s side-project, riceboy sleeps, it seems their latest album took a few notes from trent reznor. The industrial rock in several of kveikur’s tracks would be at home in a trailer featuring rooney mara sporting a dragon tattoo as she kicks in a hornet’s nest.
for the uninitiated, sigur ros has been growing a cult-like following around the world since the mid-1990s, imported to the united states through such unassuming vehicles as the 2001 sleeper film vanilla sky. lead-vocalist, jón thor birgisson, or jonsi, often eschews icelandic or english lyrics for vonleska: a melodic language jonsi created that is only sung, not spoken. think scat in jazz music. the band’s hard-to-pin-down sound is often referred to as ethereal, ambient, post-rock, and even spiritual.
kveikur wastes no time in introducing its heavy sound. “brenninstein” opens with the crackling eruption of a spaceship taking lift off, incinerating the track’s edges. cue industrial rock, with massive, robotic beats thumping throughout, and jonsi’s otherwise angelic voice laying an ominous introduction to the album. the tone is enough to prompt headbanging from long-haired, heavy metal shirt clad twentysomethings, as I noted during a recent show in a rainy vancouver park.
“hrafntinna” continues the morose feel, though more subdued than angry, with what sounds like cymbals fashioned out of metal trash can lids replacing the robotic beats. the second track concludes with a showcase of haunting, funeral-like horns that play to their own distant-marching death.
if “hrafntinna” ends with a funeral procession, the next track, “isjaki,” didn’t get the memo. things pick up here, with what might very well be the most singable sigur ros chorus in years. it seems jonsi has hid his aching heart in a track that otherwise sounds optimistic, with (rare) icelandic lyrics roughly translated, “you knew about me, i knew you / we always knew that this would end / you miss me, i miss you.” even so, “isjaki” feels festive, like a chinese new year parade, complete with brightly colored dragons dancing down the street and jonsi extending his hand, inviting the listener to join in.
though no more than my own interpretation, the emotion of the first three tracks on this album play out like an accompaniment to the paschal triduum (Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection). but we’re not out of the dark yet. several songs later, “kveikur” is perhaps the most haunting of the entire album. jonsi’s voice rips and roars in a blend of ghostlike and sinister tones, before the track concludes in a cacophony of relentless crashing drums and screeching bow guitar.
“rafstraumur” could be at home on jonsi’s 2010 solo album, go, or the playful soundtrack to we bought a zoo. its sound is flat-out jubilant, thanks to his celebratory falsetto and percussionist orri páll dýrason’s machine-gun drum lines. “bláþráður” is classic sigur ros (see agætis byrjun). the one I keep coming back to, “stormur,” continues the optimism of “isjaki,” albeit with less parade-like jubilee. the pace is even, and jonsi’s voice soars and yearns brilliantly, threatening to make a sigur ros fan out of the most skeptical listener.
true to life, kveikur does not follow a direct path from dark to light. instead, it ebbs and flows from one to the other—and then back again—before leveling out with a sublime track in “var,” the closest things come to valtari. If a piano and strings accompaniment were set out to sea on a life raft, this is what it would sound like. at the conclusion of an album that starts out with a rocket launch and robotic drum base, the peaceful conclusion of “var” calls to mind the confident, hopeful words of 14th century christian mystic julian of norwich: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
time will tell whether any of kveikur’s songs have the staying power of such classics as “glosoli,” “hoppipolla,” or “svefn-g-englar,” but the true strength of the album is its diversity. kveikur showcases the full range of the group’s capabilities, making a fitting introduction for first-time listeners. the rich texture and diversity of this album makes it feel real to life in a unique way. kveikur not only gives time to some very heavy, emotional tracks, but it also warms like a sunrise at points.
when i heard the first songs released from kveikur, the dark sound was a bit much for my taste. but witnessing several of the more menacing tracks performed live, with jonsi bent at the waist, wrenching on his bowed guitar with all the strength his lanky frame could muster, i got it. they work.
for those turned off by the heavier sound, stick with it. when we fail to acknowledge the tragedy of human experience—which some of the darker songs on this album get at—we miss the full reality of hope. the only way to easter morning, of course, is through the darkness of good friday. contemporary worship music would do well to take note.
-kveikur is available for purchase on itunes.