Q: “What’s that Sigur Rós song that goes, ‘Oo-OO-oo’, and then there’s some guitars?
A: All of them.
That’s the popular joke about the Icelandic supergroup. At one time the band’s sound seemed fresh and new, an antidote to the staid and formulaic. But over time, hundreds of other bands began to emulate the “Sigur Rós sound”, some more successfully than others; and the band began to cross into the mainstream ~ first unintentionally, then with some purpose. At one time Jónsi proclaimed that the band would never sign an endorsement, but commercials (and films) found them ~ followed by Jónsi’s solo “Go” and the “Go Do” Ford Explorer spot. Yet despite the anguish of possessive fans, there’s nothing inherently wrong with popularity; the bands we love deserve the attention, the attention leads to more money, and more money leads to more music. The popularity of one band leads to increased attention for others, which keeps a scene going. So don’t begrudge Sigur Rós their success, as fame has not led to conceit (I know this personally), nor has it led to a craven attempt to conquer the pop charts. If anything, Kveikur follows in the footsteps of Portishead’s Third, which purposely avoided the mainstream as a response to the use of the band’s music in supermarkets and spas. Don’t call us new age, that album seemed to say, or we’ll eviscerate you. Kveikur, to a lesser extent, proclaims the same.
While the presence of keyboardist Kvartan Sveinnson is missed, it’s nice to have the drums back. In fact, one of the two prominent elements that distinguishes Kveikur from its predecessor is its chime and chain percussion, most apparent on “Hrafntinna”. The timbre produced by these metallic taps serves as a fine contrast to the crunchy industrial beats and bass blasts of lead single “Brennisteinn”. When this single was released, fans asked, “Could this be the new Sigur Rós sound?” Kind of ~ it’s a new Sigur Rós sound, augmenting the classic sound without replacing it. Even “Brennisteinn” yields a classic Sigur Rós moment at the four-minute mark, while the understated brass finale is the track’s finest feature. Those who enjoy such Reznor-esque percussion are advised to jump directly to the title track, which also bears a slight resemblance to Smashing Pumpkins. So to paraphrase, it’s different for Sigur Rós, but it’s not different for rock; it’s enjoyable, but not original. To find original, one must track down “Hryggjarsúla” a bonus track found on the Brennisteinn single, the 10″ deluxe version and the Japanese disc. It’s curious that the album’s best and most adventurous track is not found on the main disc, but perhaps the band didn’t know what a gem they had. On this primarily instrumental piece, the feedback blasts are accompanied by atonal strings, which eventually yield to an orchestral center. This piece has a 0% chance of being a hit single, and it hearkens back to ( ) while pointing the way to a possible future. By preserving the difficult elements of “Brennisteinn” and removing the accessible aspects, the track seems to operate in a courageous alternate universe, and is all the better as a result.
There are of course many fans who don’t want Sigur Rós to change. There’s plenty on Kveikur for them as well. As evidence, the band released the album’s most mainstream piece, “Ísjaki”, as a lyric video. “Oo-OO-oos” are present, as they are on the propulsive “Rafstraumur”, the more distinctive “Hrafntinna” and the backwards-masking “Yfirborð”, (the third track that ends in brass). It’s easy to forgive the familiarity; harder to excuse is “Stormur”s use of a seven note theme in which six are the same, played in succession. The glockenspiel is simple enough without such repetition. But all is forgiven by the tender closer, “Var”. We do like Sigur Rós; we’ll probably buy everything they release; and we’re happy for even the smallest steps forward. (Richard Allen)
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