Even at their most majestic, Sigur Rós has never been an aggressive band. Beneath all the sweeping, icy-beautiful atmospherics ultimately lies a bunch of mellow dreamers simply indulging in their love for cathartic post-rock. So when the ethereal Icelandic group took to Reddit earlier this year to describe their seventh album, Kveikur, as “more aggressive,” it begged the question: How could a band that's innately gentle and pensive introduce “more” of something it doesn't possess in the first place, let alone pull it off without sacrificing the wonderfully abstract qualities of their sound?
As it turns out, perhaps it was simply a language barrier. Listening to Kveikur, it's clear that what Sigur Rós probably meant by “more aggressive” was “more acute.” Lest fans think the band went punk, the album isn't edgier in any traditional rock sense (louder, more discordant, more wildly emotive), but rather, it's a more pointed effort, stripped of the lavish, often self-serving production the band indulged in on Valtari. In other words, Sigur Rós isn't so much about mood anymore, but dynamics and speed. Gone are the choirs and string accompaniments, replaced by a darker, more industrial palette that dampens the band's inclinations toward all things treble. Percussion in particular—something Jónsi and company showed a passing interest in before—has gained some considerable muscle, bursting out high in the mix and lending Kveikur a rugged urgency that suggests the trio has been listening to another set of famous post-rockers: Explosions in the Sky.
The tonal shift is obvious from album opener “Brennisteinn,” a gurgling horro-movie-style dirge whose rumbling low end sounds even lower when Jónsi eventually steps in with his ghostly falsetto. Of course, this being Sigur Rós, things don't tend to get much darker than that, but on the whole, the slow, brooding pace suits the band well. Veteran performers that they are, the group knows how to be weird with poise and confidence, such as when they employ a series of clanging, droning howls on the uncharacteristically bellicose “Hrafntinna.”
“Brennisteinn” and “Hrafntinna” translate to “brimstone” and “obsidian,” respectively, quite literally reinforcing the album's cold angularity. But it's “candlewick”—the rough translation of Kveikur itself—that better captures Sigur Rós's new approach. The band's remarkable metamorphosis isn't born from boredom with their own work or the desperation to stay relevant, but a genuine creative animus, something spontaneous and organic, much like a burst of flame. If the intuitive, star-gazing Valtari served as the rediscovery of Sigur Rós's signature sound, then the instinctual, sober Kveikur is its compulsive reinvention.