MUSIC REVIEW: Experimental to excessive, and back again


Sigur Rós has had a tricky relationship with self-indulgence in the past 15 years.

The members of the Icelandic post-rock band have always given themselves plenty of room to explore. The band’s never abided by pop music conventions, creating their own lyrical languages and dismissing traditional notions of tempo, rhythm and structure. That boldness has earned a surprising degree of success. Even in the U.S., a country where international crossover tunes tend to be limited to brainless dance anthems like “Gangham Style,” hip audiences have responded to the group’s foreign lyrics and even more alien song

Albums with titles like “Agaetis byrjun” (2000), “( )” (2002) and “Taak…” (2005) earned critical praise and respectable sales figures far outside of the band’s native Iceland. The band undertook collaboration with indie darlings like Radiohead, they spawned a host of imitators and they even managed to sell out local venues like Red Rocks Amphitheater. That success, however, came with no small amount of overindulgence.

On the band’s more recent output like 2012’s “Valtari,” the abstractions felt more gimmicky than innovative. It was experimentation for the sake of experimentation, and the risk-taking that had been so novel and intriguing on the band’s early releases felt reduced to an overly indulgent formula. Happily, a pared-down version of the group has reversed that unsettling trend on “Kveikur,” the latest album slated for release in the United States this week.

With song structures that feel more cohesive and vocals that sound less listless, “Kveikur” (the title that loosely translates from Icelandic into “Candlewick”) feels like a new beginning for the band. That makes sense, considering the fact that it’s the first recording on the XL label, as well as the first creative venture since keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson departed last year. Whatever the inspiration, the sound that comes through on “Kveikur” combines abstraction with feeling; it pairs innovation with a return to lush soundscapes and adventurous contours.

That’s thanks partly to the lead vocal work of Jónsi Birgisson. His breathless musings on “Isjaki” and “Stormur” is eerily evocative; he conveys heart and soul through simple syllables alone. But Birgisson, who’s earned plenty of spotlight in the past, is only part of the reason this record works so well. The shift in personnel has given the group a newfound vitality as far as the rhythm section. “Kveikur” finally gives the proper amount of attention to bassist Georg Hólm and drummer Orri Páll Dyrason.

Indeed, Birgisson’s vocals only succeed so much on “Stormur” because of the pulsing pace provided by Dyrason. On “Brennisteinn,” the first single from the new album, Dyrason is downright thundering. The track opens to clusters of bass drum and cymbals, elements that find an ideal complement in Hólm’s droning bass work.

The rhythm section shines especially brightly on “Blapradur.” Here the fuzzy tones and surreal effects created on Birgisson’s guitar find a seamless answer in the dense drum work and understated bass. Sure, Birgisson’s dreamy vocals are the main feature, but they only come through because of the consummate skill of Hólm and Dyrason.

That’s not to say the band has stepped completely away from abstract indulgence. “Var,” a title that loosely translates as “Was,” is all about understatement and nuance. A plodding piano line kicks off the tune and apart from stretches of fuzzy feedback effects, it remains the focal point of the entire four minutes. The drums and bass are more minimal on “Hrafntinna,” a song that opts for clangy percussion and extended vocals over driving beats.

Still, reinvention lurks behind even the album’s most dreamy tracks. Sigur Rós has stumbled upon a new creative chapter in its new trio form. Like the most compelling material from the band’s early years, “Kveikur” offers surreal sound experiments that somehow manage to stay engaging for several minutes. More importantly, unlike the most self-indulgent material from the band’s recent past, this record avoids being dull.

Band members have said they created the album with a more “aggressive” feel in mind. Thanks to the newfound prominence of the rhythm section and a more restrained approach from Birgisson, that conscious effort has paid off. As it turns out, self-indulgence doesn’t have to be boring.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]