Sigur Ros are something of an institution as far as indie acts go and a very distanced, unreachable one at that. It is somehow not surprising that a post-rock act would achieve near mythic status among its followers, and Sigur Ros emerged from the same mid-90s burst of post-rock output as cult figureheads Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. But what Sigur Ros have achieved is something close to divine status; some blend of their Icelandic origin, their theatrical frontman Jonsi, and their sheltered approach to pop composition has made Sigur Ros a celestial, inhuman icon as opposed to just a revered rock outfit. But on Kveikur the stained glass is shattered, and with Kveikur the group finally approach something close to reference and something coeval to other artists. Kveikur is Sigur Ros’ most eagerly proletarian and immediately engaging collection of music, but it is also their most emotionally disinterested.
Kveikur opener “Brennisteinn” is almost as surprising a kickoff point as Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’s “Gobbledigook.” Each has the audacity to present itself as a pop song with a pop song structure, when we know full well that this is Sigur Ros we’re listening to. But perhaps pop has a new meaning in 2013 from what it did in 2008; and where “Gobbledigook” was a cheerful sliver of the stylistic kaleidoscope that Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust was trying to be, “Brennisteinn” is a dark, Radiohead-influenced establishing shot. “Brennisteinn” is a rock song, but each one of the eight rock songs that follows it strays so little from its mood, theme, and general countenance that Kveikur should probably be considered as much an ambient album as ( ), albeit a louder and more in your face one.
Much like ( ) and Takk…, Kveikur is an album of recognizable moments and songs which are defined primarily by these slight aesthetic posturings, usually presenting themselves within the first few seconds of the track. The warmongering bugle intro of “Hrafntinna” and the heart rate monitor bleeps repeating throughout “Stormur” give the listener something to hold on to. While this kind of garnish-based songwriting works perfectly well on an ambient album, on the hard attacking Kveikur it just serves to expose how lackluster these songs are. Only “Kveikur” and “Brennisteinn” truly stand out to me as clever compositions, and each sounds vaguely like it might have been written by the members of Coldplay trying to imitate Mogwai.
If Sigur Ros were alien and untouchable to many before, they may be seen as derivative and staggering now; a bloated act who have let their popularity get the best of them, at least for their most recent stylistic redefinition. Kveikur is not an album without promise or merit; as usual, Sigur Ros have managed to stunningly blend symphony-like arrangements with unique guitar wizardry and percussion that is impossible to pin down. In terms of their stadium-sized persona, Sigur Ros are showing no sign of paring anything back, and I can easily imagine the songs of Kveikur booming magnificently through an Icelandic canyon. But as a band whose ambient-cum-chamber rock compositions are recognized as influential and groundbreaking, Sigur Ros should know better than to believe that “bigger,” “louder,” and “faster” actually mean “better,” or “more interesting.”
Sigur Ros – “Stormur”
Sigur Ros – “Yfirborð”