Between Jónsi Birgisson’s inviting 2010 solo album, Go, and Sigur Rós’ recent cameo on The Simpsons, the band appears to be lightening up. Not that its output over the past 16 years is particularly heavy; if anything, its atmospheric music has set the benchmark for uplifting yet melancholic post-rock. During that time, the world has grown nothing but darker around it. Even the group’s seemingly idyllic homeland of Iceland has seen its share of economic, sociopolitical, and geological upheavals. So has Sigur Rós; keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, a member since 1998, departed last year, rendering the orchestral-sounding quartet a mere trio. With that downsizing has come a contraction of Sigur Rós’ signature sprawl. And on the band’s seventh full-length, Kveikur, that implosion has revealed a leaner, starker, far less euphoric Sigur Rós.
Kveikur is Sigur Rós with an austerity plan—and on opening track “Brennisteinn,” the band’s ribs are showing. Where the group often starts its songs with a gradual buildup of cloudlike ambience, “Brennisteinn” is a mangled, gear-grinding crawl of industrial abrasion, only topped with Birgisson’s disembodied, confectionary chirp. It makes for an unsettling disconnect, not to mention one of the most bracing, eight-minute bouts of bewilderment Sigur Rós has ever committed to disc. “Brennisteinn,” however, might as well belong to another album—sound-wise, if not mood-wise. From there, Kveikur opens itself up, even as it slumps and shuts down. There’s an abundance of space, but it only accentuates just how withdrawn—and even agoraphobic—the songs are. “Hrafntinna” is a mantra-laden meditation that feels like a ghost drifting through wind chimes; “Yfirborð” is a jittering, dubstep-accented tone poem that’s as minimalist as Sigur Rós has ever been.
That sense of shrinkage doesn’t abate; if anything, it grows more acute as the crystalline yet long-distance romanticism of “Stormur” melts to slush and feeds into the album’s title track, which coasts on a raw-nerved beat that sounds like bandages being ripped off wounds. “Bláþráður” is the cut on Kveikur that most resembles classic Sigur Rós, but its soaring transcendence is timid and frigidly stiff, as if made by a choir of caged angels. And when keyboards finally make a prominent appearance—on closer “Var,” a muted piano coda slashed by nauseous, discordant strings—it has the ring of clashing echoes, thwarted harmony, inconsolable loss. And even apocalyptic resignation. Who would have thought that, circa 2013, the group most eerily capturing the world’s collective neuroses would be Sigur Rós? Yet Kveikur is exactly such a nightmare. And it’s breathtaking as well as bloodcurdling.