Sigur Ros find themselves at a strange stage of their career. Last year’s Valtari stalled the stagnation and creative flux of previous albums, and now, with their creative spark reborn, they need to do something drastic to break out of their arrested development. On Kveikur they have attempted just that, and in the process simultaneously returned to form and uncovered a new problem, one perhaps even more alarming than their previous struggles. The problem, horror of horrors, is Jonsi.
Frontman, talisman, leader and, increasingly, limitation. Whilst the rest of Kveikur attempts to move in a bold new direction with a darker, dirtier sound, the band inevitably find themselves restricted by, of all things, Jonsi’s lack of range. His voice is undoubtedly a tremendous asset, some kind of angelic Scandinavian castrati, but it lacks variety.
Jonsi’s voice ultimately has one mode: ethereal and pretty. It puts it strikingly at odds with the new sound attempted on the album and you often feel the band struggling to fit these two disparate directions together. Songs are inevitably structured around Jonsi’s vocal acrobatics, as they have been throughout their career, but here, rather than providing the fireworks, they end up slowing down the sound and dragging it into the murk of familiarity that has increasingly sullied their work. Every song, no matter how thick and ominous the bass, no matter how explosive the percussion, feels as if it could slip back into Hoppipola or something at any moment. Jonsi, rather than an inspiration, has become a burden.
It’s particularly disheartening since the band have bloomed on the album in a manner like never before. The new sound is intoxicatingly dirty and ominous, all clattering metal and discordant guitar. The atmosphere is laid on thick right from the get go on album opener Brennstein – with its ferociously distorted, pulsing bassline it’s an ideal track to herald the shift, even if it too suffers from a mid-song segue into more traditional Sigur Ros fare. Live it’s an incredibly powerful, muscular song, much like many of the other tracks on the album, and this model of Sigur Ros seem like the one to see in person.
What the band are calling out for is a vocal presence with the capability to go darker alongside the music. As is, tracks like Kveikur feel like they’ve almost wasted their tremendous atmosphere and force when all Jonsi can do is swoon to them. They’ve all but nailed the kind of apocalyptic post-rock sound seen with bands like Teeth of the Sea and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but perhaps suffer from some of their more dramatic, and often dramatically overblown, musical tendencies.
Kveikur leaves the band still stuck in that strange position. They are at once a band reborn and one that is increasingly finding itself restricted by what once defined it. The Jonsi problem is one that seems unlikely to resolve itself soon, however. His stock has rarely been higher and he has emerged as a figurehead for Icelandic music. Perhaps more distressing is that he seems to be taken in by it, and one can only pray we don’t end up with another Matt Bellamy – drunk on his own hype and simultaneously entertaining delusions of grandeur whilst entering into an overblown artistic tailspin.
Fortunately that hasn’t quite happened yet. Kveikur still sounds great, in spite of the vocal mismatch and structural familiarities, and it remains a promising indicator of their resurgent creativity and experimentalism.
Also, and I hate to always bring up something pointless like this, but that album artwork is bloody brilliant. It has so much atmosphere and sinister energy. It’s really, really cool.
Listen to: Breinnstein, Kveikur