For almost 20 years, across six albums, celestial string swells and sweet, soothing post-rock have been the cornerstones of Sigur Rós’ sound. It’s a formula that’s seen them become Iceland’s biggest ever band. And one that, in 2005, saw them creep into the mainstream when BBC nature documentary producers cottoned on to their soaring, dewy-eyed symphonies, and borrowed their songs to soundtrack long, lingering shots of the wild in all its majesty on Planet Earth. ‘Hoppípolla’ from the band’s fourth album ‘Takk…’ was used on its trailers and it became a single due to public demand.
There’s none of that this time around, not from this dark and disturbed change of tack – unless David Attenborough turns his eye to slathering demon-eyed hell monsters. On seventh album ‘Kveikur’, Sigur Rós are at their blackest and most sinister, sounding not so much reborn as in the ferocious throes of an almighty exorcism.
Despite being reduced to a trio after the recent departure of long-serving keyboardist Kjartan ‘Kjarri’ Sveinsson, remaining members Jónsi Birgisson, Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason sure know how to make a racket. Opener ‘Brennisteinn’ is covered in motorik krautrock stomps – an instant shock after the percussion-free choral ambience of their 2012 album ‘Valtari’ – and the sort of dissonant howls you’d expect to hear echoing in the abandoned lair of a horror-film psychopath. Equally cinematic is ‘Hrafntinna’, building around eerie rattles of percussion to a blustering cello and brass climax which seeps creepily into a chilling funereal conclusion.
Singer Jónsi spoke out in 2010 about his love of “getting totally shitfaced” while listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden. Three years later, those metal influences seem to be snaking their way into songs like ‘Stormur’ and the album’s menacing title track, with its booming shades of Mastodon. Even the album sleeve, in a move away from the pastoral colours of recent releases, features a nightmarish Wilhelm scream. There are gentler moments, such as the brooding ‘Ísjaka’ and the rickety piano sonata ‘Var’, while ‘Bláþráður’ and ‘Yfirborð’ are more traditional, harking back to the slow, mewing sound of their 1999 breakthrough, ‘Ágætis Byrjun’. On the cover of that album was a child in the womb. ‘Kveikur’ feels like that child all grown up, with a fierce malevolent streak.
This is an album no-one anticipated Sigur Rós would make. This is a band whose frontman now scores Hollywood films (Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo), whose household name status was confirmed when they recently cameoed on The Simpsons, who in recent years have dealt more in bright, bouncy orchestral indie (2008’s Arcade Fire-ish ‘Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust’) than the dark experimental fare they made their name with. So ‘Kveikur’ comes as a violent but welcome surprise.