Let's get one thing clear: Valtari was not a bad album, it just wasn't a spectacular Sigur Rós album. Spectacular in the sense that it didn't quite boggle the standards the Icelandic outfit have become renowned for tackling when it comes to conjuring sounds that both emote and appeal to our metaphoric senses. What it demonstrated was that the chilly higher-plane Spartans weren't afraid of the open void of soundscapes and looser voyages of textural sound. It may have ended up less the convincing array of journeyed discovery the band have excelled in over the past fifteen years, but by no means was it an objectively failed dramatization. Which is one of the words I would describe their debut - the under-appreciated and less-visible - Von; a record that saw the band beginning their journey by slowly crawling and creeping to vast territorial, bringing with it a dense storm of dark tension and soothing melodies. Kveikur, coming less than a year after their previous release's slower unfolding, aims to return to a more sinister, less-flattered tread of sonic geological rupture - the band now without founding member and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson. But even as three-piece, at present they remain renowned under the Sigur Rós name and as such remain declared by many listeners to be the epicentral sound to immersive wander and tundra-like isolation. Well that supposed declaration and tag, by the end of this album, becomes the faint linger to what is here a more extruded, industrial and darkly descend into the most uncanny and lesser peaceful of abodes.
It doesn't take long for opener Brennisteinn to signal Sigur Rós' passage into more hellish tribulation; a sound we've not nestled in since their debut. But even then, the methods at which the three-piece explore and thus, deliver onto us these texturally-trialling sounds Twenty seconds into squeezed feedback and there's with unhinged impedance a direct, frontal pound of sludgy textures and pounding percussion - leads that sound like they're literally being choked to death and put under immense, presumable strain. It's immediately more colossal and gruesome than what we've been used to - drums storming in and out of view in thunderous bolts while guitars continue to twist and contort around Jónsi's soon-after presence of saintly vocals. But here, the lead vocalist refuses to offer himself the angelic innocence or prod of soothing lust. Instead, his voice cries out, but too feels caught in some unidentifiable grasp; flexing its delicateness and its puzzling modesty like pronouncing a musical Stockholm syndrome of sorts. But this is no suggestive shift to a louder ferocity of Nordic Metal for example, or anything completely nihilistic in its expression. Hrafntinna reminds us that even with this new-found, unreeling bleakness, comes with it a progression more sentimental, and thus, flavorsome value. There is still that scarce, tepid uncertainty in the percussion and the looming presence of drone fogging up the backdrop. But Jónsi's vocals again tend to continue on that understanding yet still imprisoned path - voice coming off securely fastened yet diligently speaking out; stretched brass and brittle percussion adding to the more congestive and slightly imprisoning context being brought up. Towards the second half, the track begins to light up some more - not so much retracting the darker shades of previous, but instead adding said sentiment of acceptance and understanding to what remains a fairly dormant and unsettling landscape, if admittedly, said latter development doesn't necessarily carry through the intensity generated previously.
But the way the album seeks to supposedly tackle the tension and perhaps personal insecurity, with this new sealed-off bordering about the way the record progresses in careful stride. Ísjaki could be perceived the part in this troubled monologue whereby one finally finds the confidence and the optimism to strive through such xenophobic territory. Jónsi's voice lights up the environment with more a hopeful - if restrained - tone, while the rhythmic and strained percussion continues to stir in the backdrop. There too remains that risk-factor and perhaps challenge potentially undermining just how promising the viewer's new-found confidence might generate. Nevertheless, the track's more structurally-persistent lead and openness to the more lucid and eery textures that stir about the lead instrumentals, creates that intriguing balance between the lightly sumptuous feeling of emotion from our viewpoint, and the darker more alienating conflict from that of the environment around us. Through it - as the album sinks somewhat deeper into a state of external anxiousness and internal persistence in the album's second half - Sigur Rós' overwhelming uplift that the challenge can be accomplished becoming their great strength.
Stormur then by result, is the sound of a great mountainous hike; knowing you still have a way to go; lungs burning and head spinning, but knowing deep down the achievement far outweighs the safety in retreat. The song's uplifting march of drums and crystalline scattering of keys and percussion, gives Jónsi's calling out to be that inner self trying its hardest to speak beyond the doubt and the earlier-than-scheduled drain. It sparks a reminiscence of the well-known Hoppípolla, but here the music doesn't exactly strive to be of that same colourful, blossoming analyses of nature's glorious visage. More, the song's seemingly deep-speaking direction verges on the existentialist and of the individual, but not forgetting about its texturally challenging forebodes of the environment. And it's that understanding; that awareness of the World potentially being that of a indecipherable adversary than too a wondrous beauty, that the band do so well at professing. The self-titled Kveikur comes off more questioned; rougher, sturdier beatings of percussion and fuzzier pressings of guitar alluding to that uncertainty about the World. Jónsi's vocals, which shift from willing understanding to vengeful tackles, are helped on by the track's noisier, thunderstorms of relay and distortion. The music especially feels ready to ignite the conflict - drums garnering the most intense spectle of the whole record while bass stirs and swirls up amongst the worrisome conflict between the individual and the environment of which is attempting to be mastered. But, as it seems, the World - in whatever form of sinister antagonism the band define these specific surroundings as dwelling in - is giving its all to refute such defeat.
The greatest point in all the album's moments (and any other moment in the band's discography) is the profound sincerity and bare honesty Sigur Rós carve here, even when pushing this more spectral, panoramic viewpoint to its tolerable threshold. Rafstraumur instantly works as such, because of how cleverly it follows the title track as that of a tale of struggle, and of the great discovery after such tribulation. The music's broad, symphonic answering of sweeping percussion, glazed strings and Jónsi's airy, metamorphic voice draw an unparalleled beauty to the World simply being that of a freshness of beauty, but a thing of identifiable conflict and challenge likewise. Here especially, he manages to weigh that feeling of testing and almost sacred bareness in his switching from sequential flutter to outright swept-off-the-ground awe. It's an awe, aided by more clearer but still ascended guitars and stormy percussion later on that bodes an unparalleled strength to the juxtapose that environments such as this are as much delicately inviting as they are deadly restraints to both the body and the mind. Closing track Var is the send-off that underpins that elemental understanding of the World simply being that of two conflicting states. The gentle piano lead feels tested and challenged in presence by the growing screeching and grated texture of guitars that grimace and conjure in the backdrop - never really surfacing to show the face behind the shaded form. And while not as structurally or progressively as blossoming or as darker than previous tracks, the message is understood perfectly and clearly.
What this album seeks to remind its listener of, is the extent to which environment, as perhaps that ill-sentient consumption we cannot ever match, can be as much a conflict as it is a wonder to which we must strive through and, in some cases, survive off. Sigur Rós' sentimentality about the World and the understanding to which they express about how gruesome and ungodly such scenarios might be projected as, comes through in vast portions on a record built from tension but aims to seek an innocent reason behind it. It's another eye-opening moment where the band prove that we, as another form of life living on this big blue World, are just one small part of the Universal beauty of existence - both the good and the bad. Kveikur isn't the absolute dark and imploringly detailed album many had assumed it to be. And admittedly, the sparse, shifting of perspective and lack of richer emotion in some parts does bring to light how much more challenging it is to take a concrete context from every idea offered. But aside from the fact that the album flanges from point to point without necessarily creating as strong an overarching link, Sigur Rós succeed in professing a reaction about such challenging scenery carrying more potentially negative vibes than perhaps positive ones. The album's blunt, checking-of-reality as being that of earth, metal and stone as opposed to merely flora, fauna and nature may not see them appear on any appetizingly visual wildlife documentaries anytime soon, but what it offers (and in vast amounts) is to present the World - even at its most basic structure - as less an easy coasting of life and nature, and more an on-going set of conflicts and challenges awaiting our next move. That risk, it seems, Sigur Rós have happily tackled head-on.