My first experience with Sigur Ros (or at least, Sigur Ros frontman Jon Thor “Jonsi” Birgisson) was back in 2010, when I caught a screening of How to Train Your Dragon at a Parisian movie theater (the words you’re looking for are: “La-Di-Da”). The song was “Sticks and Stones,” a propulsive pop track imbued with a fairy-like whimsy thanks to Jonsi’s English singing voice. As I left the theater that night, I felt rejuvenated, both by the beauty of my surroundings and by how well “Sticks and Stones” seemed to embody that beauty. Looking back, the memory of it all makes it seem all the more poignant, and the song all the more appropriate.
Alas, this experience did not summarily incite any further exposure on my part to Jonsi’s primary artistic endeavor, the Icelandic indie rock group Sigur Ros (translated “Victory Rose”). Though the group have existed for well over a decade now, and have regularly amassed much critical acclaim, I suspect it was the sheer disparity between “Sticks and Stones” and much of Sigur Ros’s proper output that kept me from fully immersing myself. Where Jonsi’s solo track was immediate and thrilling, the aim of Sigur Ros seemed for the most part to be the crafting of atmospheric, ambient soundscapes, the kind of music one does not readily pursue for casual enjoyment.
‘Kveikur’ (“Candlewick”) marks a distinct deviation from Sigur Ros’s previous works. It’s a louder album for the group, certainly their loudest since they signed on to XL in 2008, just before the extended hiatus that saw Jonsi pursuing the aforementioned solo career. Their XL debut, ‘Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust’ (“With a Buzz in Our Ears, We Play Endlessly”), toyed with a louder sound, though it and similar tracks since seemed more content to simply turn the volume up on softer compositions rather than craft purposefully loud songs. If anything were to explain ‘Kveikur’s’ relatively more bombastic mood, then it would be the influence of Jonsi’s solo work: his 2010 album, ‘Go,’ is easily characterized as a continuation of the “Sticks and Stones” sound, and on ‘Kveikur,’ we get to see what happens when that sound is blended with Sigur Ros’s traditionally icier compositions.
The result initially presents itself as the darker half to Jonsi’s sound: on the opening track ” Brennisteinn” (“Brimstone”), Sigur Ros create a looming sense of urgency and impending dread, the aural equivalent of a swirling of storm clouds. Deep and fuzzy bass thunders amid discordant cymbal clangs; violins and Jonsi’s distinct tenor embody the lighting flashes and the driving sheets of rain. All this is to say, it”s a suitably dramatic and captivating start which Sigur Ros successfully expand upon over the coarse of “Hrafntinna” (“Obsidian”), with the introduction of horns to the mix and a more choral, soaring air to the vocals; and “Isjaki” (“Iceberg”), ‘Kveikur’s’ standout track. If all these attempts at high prose have made this all sound like the kind of epic instrumentals that accompany grand battles in Middle Earth, then allow me to back-peddle: Sigur Ros never really affect any sense of gloom or doom here, but instead convey a kind of sweeping natural splendor not strictly limited to sunny skies. That being said, however, “Isjaki” can absolutely be called a joyous track, so much so that its follow-up, “Yfirboro” (“Surface”), plays out like “Isjaki – reprise,” another shining beam of a song whose occasional feedback swells serve as a kind of come-down from the dizzying heights of ‘Kveikur’s’ first half.
From here, Sigur Ros don’t so much as get any worse as they tend to repeat themselves a bit. “Stormur” is another ethereal swelling of strings and pianos, “Kveikur” a darker, bassier beast in the same vein as “Brennisteinn.” These instances of apparent repetition can be chalked up to the obvious loss of lyrical context: as Jonsi sings in his native Icelandic all throughout ‘Kveikur,’ his voice is stripped down to a purely aural component for the vast majority of English speaking listeners (Jonsi utilized both Icelandic and English on his solo album, though there, again, his accent rendered much of the lyrics indecipherable). Ironically, this quality did lend itself particularly well to Sigur Ros’s more ambient albums, where the creation of less intrusive compositions was largely the point. Here, on the other hand, we have the unintended side-effect of songs like “Rafstraumur” (“Electric Current”) being overshadowed by their predecessors, though not necessarily lessened.
To its credit, “Blapraour” (“Thin Thread”) succeeds in fishing the album out strong, with the sparse instrumental “Var” acting as a kind of credits roll to the driving percussion and pleading melancholy that precedes it. Still, as rich and touching as it can be, there’s a sense that ‘Kveikur’ is over far too soon, particularly now that Sigur Ros are crafting more defined songs. The Sigur Ros of old will always be welcome, but if ‘Kveikur’ marks the beginning of a more commercial sound for the band, then it serves as both a successful first step and a promising glimpse of what’s to come.