The austerity of grandeur

Sigur Rós have gone from post-rock saviours to forgettable, bloated, orchestro-philes, but on Kveikur, their homeland’s descent into austerity has seen them trim back and become relevant once again.

When Sigur Rós released their second, breakthrough album, Ágætis Byrjun, at the end of 1999, Iceland was a talismanic island of freedom and egalitarianism. The government had opened up their markets to the world, and the flood of foreign money had led to an extraordinary standard of living while still retaining income equality that was the envy of the world.

This boom was reflected, unwittingly or not, in Sigur Rós’ output. Not only were the four young Icelanders given to lavish excess, but everything they did was underpinned by a sense of fairness and equality. Witness the stunning, Broadway-in-heaven coda that keeps taking ‘Olsen Olsen’ to new heights. alongside the clip for the iconic ‘”Svefn-g-englar” with its familiar sonar ping and troupe of dancers with down syndrome. The video is joyous, stately and quietly thrilling – a celebration of difference, rather than a sombre dirge.

Sigur Rós have fluctuated tonally since, but that sense of optimism, married with an underlying heaviness, a vague sense of menace that is likewise translated as a sense of place – the obligatory references to volcanoes and rocky plateaus that come with every Sigur Rós review.

In Iceland, though, we all know what happened next. The great free-market experiment went tits up, and how. GDP went from regular 7% increases to a crash of 7% in 2009 and 4% in 2010, and income inequality is on the rise.

This comes as the Icelandic government is enacting savage cuts to public spending – the austerity that has inexplicably become the response of many countries worst affected by the global recession.

Sigur Rós’ latest album, Kveikur (pronounced approximately like ‘quaker’) continues this loose connection between the island nation and the band that is increasingly coming to symbolise them abroad. Today, even Sigur Rós find themselves trimming their sails. Since the disappointing Valtari earlier this year, the band have divested themselves of keyboardist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson, and the results are instructive.

But while Iceland is suffering under the yoke of the oppressive conditions of international bailout money, Sigur Rós represent a masterclass in the benefits of creative destruction. The loss of Sveinsson has forced the band to pare back, cast off the orchestral flourishes that had become both trademark and millstone, and emerge leaner, tighter and more relevant than they have in nearly a decade.

Ubiquity can be an awful thing for some bands, and the alien thrill that accompanied Ágætis Byrjun and ( ) had faded being replaced by a familiarity that comes with being on every uplifting soundtrack and slow-mo football outro montage. As a result, suddenly albums like Valtari sounded banal, even boring (also because Valtari was quite boring). And for a band with a baby angel for a lead singer, an electric guitar played with a violin bow and a penchant for nine-minute epics, that’s a worrying thing indeed.

On Kveikur, the shock of the renewed doesn’t take long to kick in. At 0.30 on opening track and lead single, ‘Brennisteinn’, a cacophony of metal kick drums and squalling guitar noise signal a leaner, wiser, less blissed-out group. The lurking menace has returned – the title translates as ‘Brimstone’ – and its prettiness has a purpose. It’s a song hard to imagine accompanying a a Leo Barry mark or Israel Folau try.

Dissenters from the regular waves of effusive, overwrought praise (the purplest of which was probably describing the band’s sound as “the sound of god weeping tears of gold in heaven”) have regularly dismissed that group as ‘elevator music’; a forgettable wall of background noise.

It is harder to make that case today. The meeting of ubiquity and austerity that characterises Sigur Rós today is best reflected in perhaps the album’s best new song – ‘Ísjaki’. As the band has become more embedded in the world’s pop music consciousness, so has their sound become embraced and normalised. In 2000, this five-minute excursion in squalling melody would be odd. Today, it’s almost benign. Its immediacy means that the choral hook is one of the most arresting pieces of music this year, and it must be a hard soul that remains unmoved by its beauty.

Sigur Rós have long been associated with a more humanist style of politics than the fierce ‘rationality’ of right-wing fiscal hawks. And yet, on Kveikur, by embracing that mentality, and intertwining it with their intrinsic self of childish wonderment, they’ve made something as beautiful, immediate and, yes, relevant as they have in nearly a decade.

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