That Kveikur translates to “candlewick” and phonetically sounds like “quake” is appropriate, as Sigur Rós’ seventh album is their most explosive and action-packed. Perhaps it’s to compensate for the departure of Sveinsson, or maybe bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason are just tired of getting 0% of the credit over the past decade and a half. Either way, Kveikur is defined by its rhythm section, even as it wisely repositions Jónsi‘s inimitable vocals as the focus, back where they belong after being used as mostly texture on Valtari.
After the ambient bubble bath of Valtari, the deep drum hits within the first minute of “Brennisteinn” disrupt Sigur Rós’ artistic stasis like a cannonball; the heavy metal churn takes on a metaphorical and symbolic aspect, as if signifying Sigur Rós’ transformation from an inanimate object into a vengeful, destructive Decepticon. From there on out, Sigur Rós are fully committed to stress testing their sound. Whenever the distorted bass lunges on the title track, it sounds like it’s trying to drill oil from the ocean floor. The feedback shrieks throughout “Brennisteinn” feel elegant and sleek rather than abrasive, like fine cutlery on black marble instead of nails on a chalkboard. “Hrafntinna” is a metal song in a literal sense, composed of fractured cymbals, sonorous brass, the whinny of horsehair on steel guitar strings; over its six minutes, there’s a filmic, storytelling quality that shows Jónsi could and should be doing soundtrack work for movies with more heft than We Bought A Zoo.
It’s one thing for a complete sonic overhaul to be necessary, but what stands out about Kveikur is how natural it feels. As opposed to a rebranding, this is Sigur Rós internally reconstituted, where the biggest addition isn’t distorted guitars or huge drums or Jónsi going full tilt. More than sounds, this is an integration of new verbs and actions, as Sigur Rós pummel, rage, wail and assert, asking hard questions of themselves. What if they could harness their power to convey immediate anger instead of patient catharsis, as a soundtrack for lifting weights instead of zoning out? Jónsi’s vocals will always bear an extraterrestrial shimmer, but why can’t he play the avenging archangel rather than a friendly ghost? After 15 years of evoking Iceland’s gorgeous, volcanic terrain and woodsprite legends, why not reflect the endless winters, cratered economy and the frightening suicide rate?
Even if it doesn’t have the same cultivated mystery or incapacitating demands of Agaetis Byrjun or ( ), Kveikur is every bit a return to form, tapping into its predecessors’ bottomless emotional wellspring for a Sigur Rós album that can be listened to casually or intensely, a collection that works as effectively as a spiritual experience and pop music, the essence of their overwhelming, widescreen grandeur conveyed with the immediacy of a 50-minute rock record.-Pitchfork