Or – “Jónsi dreams of penthouses and kidney-shaped swimming pools in Monaco.”
OR! – “How Sigur Rós stopping being so left-field and learned to enjoy the wonders of stadium rock.”
It’s been a fair few weeks ago since I subliminally managed to persuade myself to purchase ‘Kveikur’, the latest album from Sigur Rós. And being the boring music nerd that I am, I found myself some notes/thoughts about it on the back of a utility bill, with the possibility that I may even write a review on this in some form (Shock horror, etc).
But as I was doing this, a friend on twitter quite rightly pointed out, “Does it never feel pointless to write something about albums that already get tons of reviews?” And you know what? She’s right. Dead energy and all that. There are already numerous few reviews about ‘Kveikur’ out there that pretty much chimed with what I wthought about it. Despite the GV exclaiming that there has been LOTS of critical acclaim for ‘Kveikur’ (And there have been a few), reviews from the likes of The Quietus, FACT, and even professional hipster Atli Bollason (In the GV no less!), have been far more measured in their appraisal and thoughts of the album. Those thoughts being;
1) It’s probably their best/best sounding album since ‘Takk.’ In some ways you could put this down to the absence of Kjarri, with the other three guys needing to pick up that slack, sonic-wise. Everything about the album sounds much brighter in production, with the instruments seemingly turned up a notch or two in the mix. The bass for instance, has that slightly distorted, crunchy feel when it’s played. And you can really hear it in the drums/rhythm section. After spending the best part of ‘Valtari’ with his feet up, and with a copy of DV and a mug of coffee, Orri has been pressed back into double shift action. He murders those floor toms straight from the off on “Brennisteinn,” and he never lets up as he pretty much blasts his way through this album. Good to have him back.
Funny there’s all this talk about SR going all “Dark” and stuff, with the likes of Kitty Empire saying they’ve gone black metal (LOL), or David Fricke saying that they’ve gone metal. Do these people who write for mainstream media about music, ever listen to any contemporary music at all? Just wondering. Atli rightly points out the Ben Frost link, but there’s a whole swathe of minimal crunching contemporary links as well, such as the likes of The Haxan Cloak, These New Puritans. OK, I will be a bit kind to David as the opening 45 seconds of “Brennsteinn” has that heavy chug that you´d expect from some kind of post-hardcore/metal band. Vibes of Cult Of Luna/Isis/et al, until Jónsi’s vocals come breezing in. Going back to the point about all three guys picking up the slack from Kjarri – We probably should remember that these guys in their early days were informed in their influences by shoegaze/grunge rock and a fair bit of metal (Thanks HSM!). Perhaps they’re just trying to link back into that time before Kjarri arrived a little bit, with the idea of simply getting together and blasting out a jam, with Orri banging his sticks going “1-2-3-4!!” And that leads to point number…
2) There’s not an ounce of subtlety on this record. None at all. I listened back to ‘()’ a couple of days ago and you begin to realise that in terms of structure/chords/melodies, many SR songs are actually very simple in their set up. A decent musician could get the song in a minute or so. What makes them special is the sense of atmosphere they’ve squeezed out of such basic structures, creating an organic sense of build and release. “Svefn-g-englar,” Ný Batterí, “Samskeyti,” “Popplagið,” and many more tracks, even “Glósóli,” and “Sæglópur” from ‘Takk,’ were drawn out and allowed to build in their own good time. This is probably why there are so many links with SR and Icelandic nature in the way that nothing feels rushed or forced. ‘()’ in some ways is very much a long, single track that continuously breathes in and out in its peaks and troughs.
Not so with ‘Kveikur.’ Every track is pretty much fuzzzzzzZZZZZ-woooooOOOOO-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-SCREEEEECH- MeeeeEEEWWWW-WooooOOOOooooOOOO-BANG-CRASH-WALLOP!!!! OK, I’m being a little dramatic here, but apart from “Yfirborð,” intros that would have easily taken a couple of minutes to ease into are far shorter and more direct. And when they do kick into the song, it’s more like flicking like a light switch than putting on a dimmer. There’s no middle ground or build up involved. In may ways, they’re simply serving up big, meaty, individual slabs of whalemeat rock. “Var,” the final track is probably the only thing that reminds you of their “classic” sound.
3) With that in mind, ‘Kveikur’ eventually feels a little like a trade-off/compromise between a bigger, more accessible sound, and a flattening of the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies that made SR very much different to all those other post-rock bands out there. ‘Kveikur’ is good overall, in some places excellent, but not really epoch defining.
Perhaps in a slightly subconscious (As in they haven’t sat in front of a whiteboard and planned it out) way, they’re making a move artistically towards the centre, towards the arena/festival rock sphere. This whole easier-to-digest sound has been bubbling up for a while now, building little by little since ‘Takk,’ and especially since Jónsi’s solo album, ‘Go.’ Cue putting on a Dan Aykroyd voice circa ‘Trading Places’ – “My GOD, Sigur Rós are trying to corner the arena rock market!!”
And hey, why not? It wouldn’t really be that bad a thing, would it? I´ve never expected any huge cultural rewards from music catering to a wide demographic base before, but maaaan are things truly moribund there at the moment. You’ve got Apollonian bedwetters like Coldplay and The National (Funny when you’ve got two of the biggest rock bands in the world, and they don’t even rock that much), then there’s the freeze-dried Dionysian merchants (Kings Of Leon, Biffy Clyro, The Black Keys, etc), those that did rock the boat but are now spinning out into the realms of comfortable irrelevance (Radiohead), or those who are FIRMLY up their own arses (Muse, Arcade Fire). The fact that Of Monsters & Men are fast facilitating a new orthodoxy of Icelandic music here means now is pretty much as good a time as any for them to make a stamp for their own patch in that centre. Also we need to remind ourselves that they are getting on a bit as a band, (20 years now), so perhaps they’Re feeling that restlessness to make their mark with a new audience. Ask yourself this – would you listen to ‘Kveikur,’ or the last album from Coldplay? No contest really.
I mean take the following two videos. The first is for “Glósóli,” from ‘Takk.’ Lots of ‘Heima’-era cutesy-ness, albeit with the prerequisite dark undercurrent.
Wasn’t that sweet? Now take the video for “Brennsteinn.” With its semi naked tribesmen, dust, dirt, and hints of chariots of the gods, It’s pretty much saying “Hey Muse! You think you can do earth hewn galactic rock’? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!”
If I were you, I’d put a fair bit of money of SR taking a headline slot at Glastonbury in the next year or two. You heard it here first!
POST MEANDERING NOTE – Is it me, or have SR been slyly trolling us all to hell in the last 18 months? I mean, there was the whole “Kjarri-gate” affair. First they denied that he was leaving, forcing retractions from local writers (“Hey Dr. Gunni you better take down that blog exclusive, or we’ll send some elves around to break your legs!”). Then he was still a member of the band, but he wasn’t touring (“Touring is never good for creativity.” Pull the other one! Who do you think he is – Brian Wilson??), before finally admitting in the end (And a long way down the line) that yes, he wasn’t a member of the band anymore. Not at all long-winded or beating round the bush, eh? It´s almost as if they were trying to get out of some kind of record company contractual obligation or something (Possibly. Who knows? *cough*)
Oh, and then there was ‘Valtari,’ in which they tried to convince us that it wasn’t an album of old ambient sweepings from the studio floor, massaged by the cold, dead hand of Alex Somers. Again it was almost as if they were merely fulfilling some kind of contractual obligation, before going to a new label (Allegedly! *cough cough!*) We all ended up tying ourselves in knots as we tried to convince ourselves that it was an album of big importance, with its “brave” sounds and “new direction,” ignoring the fact that they fell for one of the worst rock clichés imaginable, by using a boys choir to instill a form of angelic ethereal ambiance to the music. I ended up writing an awful review (Thankfully unpublished) where I scrabbled around for 1000 words, painfully grasping for some form of insight, where in reality I just wanted to say “Meh. It´s okaaay, but there’s much better out there.” Even Olí Palli was still out there at the end of the year, saying it was the best album of 2012. To be honest, some of us (myself included) thought that as a band they had reached the end of the road creatively speaking. And then they had to go and blast everything back into focus at this year’s Airwaves festival (Note, only two tracks on that entire set came from ‘Valtari’). Today, it almost feels as if it’s been airbrushed form the band’s collective memory. “What’s a Valtari?” I think they say now in interviews.
And that Boiler Room set!!! Playing shitty trap tunes through an i-Pad!! ROFLcopter! A perfectly planned car crash if ever there was one, utilising the fact that Icelanders as a species are tight-knit professional party people who can act kerrazy at the crop of a hat. That actual performance is not online yet, but they’ve actually uploaded the mix to FACT magazine. Have a listen for a good laugh! It reminded me a bit of when Björk would turn up to Bakkus with an iPod and would insist DJ’ing, only for her to play tracks such as that fucking awful Enya Vs Prodigy mashup song!
Haters gonna hate, etc, etc….