Review Summary: And in between, the loneliest horns you've ever heard...
One reads far too many reviews comparing Kid A nowadays (Oh, hey Yeezus, how are you doing?), but if I had to pick any album to embody Kid A that wasn’t Kid A, I would pick Valtari. Kid A is usually hailed as the album that flipped Radiohead on its head, an unexpected polarizing new direction that was daring and experimental, and all of this is true, but what Kid A’s real genius is that it perfectly embodies Radiohead’s trademark paranoia. Sure, it was brilliantly portrayed in OK Computer, but with OK Computer’s raging composition, there was at least power given to the listener to resist it. When placed in the grips of Treefingers, and Morning Bell, there is a highly potent and disturbing feeling, one knows the world is hopelessly ***ed up, but you’re content, and helpless to make or even attempt any change.
That same emotion is contained within Valtari, if you pay attention. An icy isolation that bubbles under the serene surface of the album’s final three tracks, a relentless ugly underside to the relentless beauty of the surface. Critics have often described Kveikur as Sigur Ros finding their angst again, but there’s a reason that the final track of Sigur Ros’s Untitled, a fiery release of tension, is titled Pop Song. Because for Sigur Ros, the angst is the tension, and the “pop” is in the release.
Kveikur is release, and it realistically could not have occurred without Valtari. All the brimming energy contained within the silence of Fjogur Piano is released immediately in the opening notes of Brennisteinn, as raging pulses of bass and a new industrial crunch ripple through. It’s as much of a proclamation as it is reaction, a natural progression from where Sigur Ros has most recently been. And appropriately, from there on, it’s Sigur Ros as usual, barring any of that trademark calm. It doesn’t take long for Jonsi’s helpless inclination towards pop music to take a strong foothold. For all the acclaim Meo suo i eyrum… has received for being Sigur Ros’s pop record, this does everything Meo suo i eyrum… does, but with more daring ideas, and an entirely new emphasis on energy, “Isjaki” borrows the pulsing drums of Jonsi’s solo work, but with a stronger melody and greater construction. Stormur’s first minutes tease of Sigur Ros’s trademark balladry, but instead rips into a torrent of bright guitars and bouncy momentum. The title track, arguably the strongest piece on the album, is also the closest thing Sigur Ros has ever produced to a contemporary rock number, and the song that precedes it, Rafstraumur, has a riff that comes straight out of the standard alt-rock playbook. Horns in between the tracks reflect the isolation of Valtari, providing foundation for the new sense of release Sigur Ros has found within these sounds, but surrounded by moments of pure and constant explosion, they lose most of their menace.
It’s an interesting trick that Valtari’s album cover is a serene piece of art, while Kveikur’s comes straight out of a horror movie, but it’s fitting, because everything Valtari represses, Kveikur showcases fearlessly. We often portray Sigur Ros’s music as being joyful and pretty, and sure, they’ve given us plenty reason to. The Takk period was all marching bands, and Meo suo i eyrum… ‘s central image was naked children running boundlessly through a field. But Sigur Ros’s newest progression is one of great depth. It is easily missed among the fact that Sigur Ros continues to metamorphosize from a post rock band to a very Icelandic rock band, but within this progression is the definite statement that their music is not only beautiful and joyous, it is also helplessly dark. That all these contradictions fit so easily together is the very reason Sigur Ros’s last two albums, conjoined at the hip as they are, have been such masterstrokes.