I realize I’ll probably lose a couple of friends when I say this, but I fucking hate post-rock. I hate it, down to its pretentious name (don’t worry, I have the same problems with “postmodern” and the fact that it’s led to the even more moronic “postpostmodern,” and I’ll point out that there are plenty of post-rockers who hate the term themselves) and its sorry lack of songwriting. The crescendos upon crescendos are certainly impressive (at times), but they’re often too nothing to something about and they fail to ever signify anything (Politics? Get the fuck out of here). Which is probably why people had unofficially declared it dead—once its methods had been exploited over and over by bands no one knows, there was nowhere left for it to go.
Sigur Ros vaguely understood it, going so far as trying their hand at imitating Animal Collective (“Gobbledigook”) and hiring pop producer Flood on 2008’s Meo suo i eyrum vio spilum endalaust. But on 2012’sValtari, they retreating into a Eno-esque safety net and ended up making as much an impression on the music world as the world’s largest ant in a death match with an average-sized anteater. The thing is, Sigur Ros never needed to resort to such methods. They’ve always stood out in the post-rock frontier because they’ve got something that the rest of the post-rockers don’t have. And no, I’m not referring to the fact that they sing in Italian (I’m kidding, I know they’re Icelandic—the point is, the language they’re singing in – English, Icelandic or made up – doesn’t matter), and no, I’m not referring to the fact that Jonsi has a pretty voice to match his pretty name. On the most inspired moments of their discography, ie. “Svefn-g-englar,” “Starálfur,” “Untitled 4 (“Njósnavélin”),” “Inni mer syngur vitleysingur,” and obviously “Hoppipolla,” they assimilated that post-rock goodness into an unmistakably pop template to frankly astonishing results. That’s where Kveikur differs – most of the songs here are pop songs in structure.
For all the talk that Kveikur (“Candlewick”) is Sigur Ros’s darkest album, it is and it isn’t. It’s too much of a generalization. Yes, lead single and opener is named after a symbol of God’s wrath (brimstone), and yes, the cover of the album (and that of its singles) looks like it came out of a slasher horror flick – a KKK member wearing a gas-mask. But, because none of us speak Icelandic (and from what I understand, not even Icelanders can speak it either), I can’t rely on lyrics as I would most any other record (and I realize I could use Google, but I’m scared that if I do, I’d learn that Jonsi is a terrible lyricist. So I won’t and the mysticism is kept alive). So we turn our attention to the sounds instead. Second single “Isjaki” is “Hoppipolla”’s cousin, again, a song with all the unmistakable components that could make something pop—you know, a melody as tangible as the keyboard I’m typing on (seriously; you’ll be “OOH-WOOH-OOH!”-ing in no time at all). The same goes for “Stormur,” which throws some jangly piano at us after the chorus, and “Rafstraumer,” with its gorgeous choir during the chorus over a one-note piano riff. Call me crazy, but the day such songs sound dark is the day Zack Snyder puts together a great movie. As far as I can tell, the only songs that sound dark are the aforementioned “Brennsteinn,” the clanging metal of “Hrafntinna” that follows (and the somber funeral procession that ends it), the title track, and the opening few minutes of “Bláþráður” with its guttural bass roars. And that’s only half the album!
The difference between this, and say, yesteryear’s album that had a lot of exclamation marks by a band that has a lot of exclamation marks in its name that caused the press to print out headlines that read, “Post-rock no longer dead! Post-post-rock!” is because Kveikur is different. It’s no longer trying to rely on crescendos upon crescendos, emphasizing the “rock” part of post-rock instead of the “post-” part. All of these songs throw drums at us as soon as we’re ready for them, whereas we previously had to slog through 10 minutes to reach them on “Untitled 8 (“Popplagid”).” As Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen asserts, “[They are] asking hard questions of themelves. What if they could harness their power to convey immediate anger instead of patient catharsis, as a soundtrack for lifting weights instead of zoning out?” Or, in my own words, they’re giving us something to something out while still sounding unmistakably like Sigur Ros (ie. the apocalyptic ambient backdrop of “Brennisteinn;” the ambient retread of closer “Var,” which is, if I may be so bold, basically a summary of the entirety of Valtari in 3 minutes). Considering just how Valtari played it way too safe and that between then and now, Sigur Ros lost Kjartan Sveinsson -whose induction led to their reinvention for Agaetis Byrjun – I’m more than pleasantly surprised—I’m actually floored by how good this is.
Their best album (so far).