Icelandic post-rockers find fresh perspective
on revelatory record
I once got drunk at Björk’s house and did a little jig with her garden gnome beneath the green ribbony glow of the Northern Lights. I danced on the bar at the now defunct Reykjavík all-hours bar Sirkus, and sang George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” with a beautiful blonde ice queen. I climbed a glacier and stood tippy-toe on a grey mountain of moss to glimpse the stone building where Vikings first colonized the island nation in the 9th Century.
But all I really wanted to do when I went to Iceland was see the
swimming pool. Not just any swimming pool, mind you. This one had
magical powers—or so it seemed. Because it was in this refurbished
public watering hole that Sigur Rós had birthed some of the most
otherworldly sounds to ever be labeled “indie rock.” So I hopped in my
friend’s car and pointed it north, ignoring my throbbing bladder until
I reached a tiny outpost called Álafoss. There, in a building not much
more stately than a shack, I found the place, now called Sundlaugin
I cupped my hand to the window, repeatedly fogging it with my breath,
taking in the antiquated Neve console, the banks of discarded guitars
and the cellos propped against one wall like hunks of an asteroid spit
up by the galaxy. When I finally gave in to my urge to pee, I couldn’t
bring myself to sully Sundlaugin’s perimeter. Instead, I hiked to a
nearby stream. It seemed so much more respectful.
Ever since 1999 when their second album, Ágætis Byrjun,
spread like a handshake drug among gob-smacked tastemakers, Sigur Rós
has carved out a rather impossible legend. Looking back, it’s amazing
how much it stood out in a year crowded with milestones: Magnetic
Fields’ 69 Love Songs, The Flaming Lips’ prog-pop reinvention The Soft Bulletin, the percocet twang of Wilco’s Summerteeth, and Pavement’s swan song Terror Twilight.
Somehow—amid all those landmarks—it was a blue cardboard sleeve with a
silver alien baby on the cover that made the most curious impact.
Intricately enunciated words nobody could understand. A polysexual
angel singing and moaning as he dragged his bow mournfully across the
guitar. Loud/soft/loud dynamics that took then-rote rock ’n’ roll
expression to a state of near constant orgasm. It didn’t sound human.
Hell, it didn’t even sound earthly.
As Sigur Rós closes in on 15 years together, that thick misty aura
of What-the-Fuck? remains firmly intact. The band has made a career out
of mystery, touring the world behind blinding white lights pointed into
the crowd’s eyes, hammering out songs that creak like a tinkling music
box rigged with explosives. But after four albums, they seem to realize
that—while pioneering your own niche of epic chamber rock is
great—sometimes temporarily leaving the ether to dab your feet in the
mud of more traditional sounds can be refreshing. Revelatory even.
The nearest comparison is Radiohead—after autistically following their own contrarian muse through the glitchiness of Kid A and the desolation of Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief
was a melding of the band’s extravagant leanings with the
meat-and-potatoes Brit pop that put them on the map. On Sigur Rós’
fifth album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, they’re
reaching the same sort of trailhead. While the band has no similar
frame of verse/chorus/verse familiarity, there seems to be an attempt
to view things from a fresh perspective: For the first time, Sigur Rós
ventured outside of its partially subterranean studio in the frigid
North Atlantic, instead working in New York City, London and even
Its expertise at majestic drone remains, but the group colors
outside of well-established lines this time around, pounding on tribal
drums during “Gobbledigook,” smearing swaths of mellotron across
“Fljótavík” and “Straumnes,” and pulling back on its patented reverb in
favor of crisp, clean lines. It’s not just in the songs, either. Most
Sigur Rós albums come packaged in a glacial sheen, but Með suð í eyrum
is being released within a month of its completion, giving the
production an intimate, immediate feel. Piano pedals are audibly
pressed, sighs and studio chatter twitter in the background, notes are
missed. Even the silence between songs carries weight. It makes you
think that maybe there’s more to the naked asses on the cover than
just, well, naked asses. The whole of Með suð í eyrum seems to be about laying oneself bare, leaving the process open to mistakes and the possibility of dicey experimentation.
On “Festival,” Jónsi Birgisson spends the first half of the song backed
only by an organ and his gently sawed guitar. The high, lonely wail
sounds like a prayer, beautiful in its frailty and (one imagines) its
requests for forgiveness. He’s answered on the backhalf by a pounding
chorus of kick drums and plucked bass strings, culminating in a
mushroom cloud of percolating brass. And then there’s “Ára bátur.”
Recorded in one take with the London Sinfonietta and London Oratory
Boy’s Choir, it’s stunning—monumental in balls and bravado. All told,
the song features 90 people singing, playing and blowing at the same
time, all pressing gently to a singular explosion of Big Bang
proportions. When it finally happens right near the eight-minute mark,
it absolutely weakens the knees. Sigur Rós has never unleashed goose
bumps like this.
But the real revelation on Með suð í eyrum is the
much-fretted-about first English-language song the band has ever
recorded, “All Alright.” It’s a risky maneuver. What if, behind the
tricky linguistics and musical napalm, Birgisson’s really just singing
about getting laid? Ya know, “Paradise by the Moon Rock Lights?”
But no. While the track itself is prototypical Sigur Rós (a slow-mo
marching band of muted brass and piano), finally hearing Birgisson’s
fragile, sometimes cracking voice croaking out lines like, “Maybe it’s
time to move on / Maybe today”—nouns and verbs to which I can attach
feelings and emotions—it does resonate.
It’s a thing of singular beauty. The kind of thing that keeps you
staring, fogging up the windows as your eyes and ears glaze over in