In 2005, the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós released Takk…, an album of dreamy, ambient music fated to soundtrack a thousand Sky Sports goal montages. Jónsi Birgisson and his group have created some gorgeous sounds, but their placid, drifting songs have tended to fade into the background. It’s a problem the band seem to be aware of, and since Takk… Sigur Rós have been searching for new ways to sharpen their music into something which can’t be ignored.
They tried acoustic folk elements on Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (‘With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly’) in 2008, and last year’s Valtari added extra synths and a baroque choir. Both were nice enough, but their latest album is something else entirely. Kveikur piles thick layers of distortion and discord onto the beautiful, swooning melodies that made the band’s name. It’s a storming record, showcasing a new direction that could reposition them as one of the world’s best noise-rock bands.
The opening track ‘Brennisteinn’ sets this new tone with huge, fuzzy, guitars, and ‘Stormur’ and ‘Kveikur’ deliver thudding, pulsing, churning industrial textures underneath some of the album’s most uplifting harmonies. ‘Rafstraumur’ matches an enormous, howling distorted guitar part and insistent drums with some sugar-sweet singing, while ‘Bláþráður’ is full of weird grinding noises, like huge dark things moving on the very edge of the sound field.
Even the gentle strings on the final track, ‘Var’, play long, teeth-grittingly discordant notes. Kveikur is an aural assault from start to finish: an album which refuses to fade into the background. It’s exactly what Sigur Rós needed to do, and they’ve done it splendidly. For the first time in a long time, Jónsi and company sound surprising.