Sigur Rós Make a Grand Return on ÁTTA

The Icelandic post-rock group’s first album in 10 years arrives with the help of an orchestra that helps their sound grow even more massive

Music Reviews Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós Make a Grand Return on ÁTTA

Sigur Rós, as cliche as it may be to say, make magic. Ever since their breakout album, Ágætis byrjun, the Icelandic project has redefined post-rock—and music writ large—uncovering the cool, cathartic possibilities in orchestration. Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto vocals, often in a self-made language, alongside the cello-bowed guitar give the music a transhuman quality, suggest something more ethereal, more fluid and more atmospheric than what humans naturally manifest. But where ‘90s post-rock often leaned cerebral—beautiful in many ways, but often difficult to embrace—Sigur Rós found a way to maximize the shine so much that listeners forget they’re listening to something novel. Their music is wide-eyed and billowing, careening through valleys and peaks of human pathos with supernatural breadth.

The band has titillated fans over the past year with trickles of news: the return of Kjarri, European and North American orchestral tours and the announcement of a new song entitled “Blóðberg.” It all leads here, to ÁTTA, the band’s eighth studio album and first in a decade. “Blóðberg” is less of a single and more of a snippet. While ÁTTA is split into ten “tracks,” each song encroaches on the next, requiring a continuous listen back-to-front, as if listening to a symphony or an opera. Undergirding the whole experience is a 41-piece orchestra, and while the music is, as one might expect, beautiful, there are hints of torment and desolation that are hard to ignore, even if Birgisson’s singing evokes a certain Planet Earth-type of awe.

The gleeful opening movement, “Glóð,” crescendos with terrifying ease, rising to the absolute top of expressive possibility before a sudden cliff dive, eventually leaving a stark hum from which “Blóðberg” will emerge. Over seven minutes, strings and winds fill the room with sonorous strokes, creating jagged bloodstone peaks that recall the nihilism that director Johan Renck depicted in his moving video for the track. “Skel” has an attractive denouement, reaching a crystalline climax in its middle as Birgisson lurches for the peak of his falsetto while the cello wails underneath.

Where the vocals and dynamics are most breathtaking is on “Andrá,” with Birgisson front and center over a sea of strings and swirling piano. Like an inhale and exhale, the dynamics creep up and down on “Andrá.” Again, Birgisson is the star on “Gold,” uttering occluded but faintly intelligible lyrics in rare form. He works in extremes on “Ylur,” bellowing conversationally in a human voice before ascending his falsetto so high he transcends his own corporeal form—directing his utterances and the orchestra toward the heavens. This stretch offers ample moments of reflection, but no respite; as charming as the music of Sigur Rós is, it asks much of its listenership.

The titles on ÁTTA are simple, with respect to Sigur Rós’s conventions; many of their greatest hits present polysyllabic titles, occasionally necessitating sounds that English speakers cannot quite place. Many track titles on this album are one quick syllable, with names like “Gold,” “Fall” or “Skel.” The album’s title itself is, simply, the Icelandic word for “eight.” The concluding track is also “8”; it oscillates and grows into a formidable, punctuated meditation—before closing with precise engineering and piano keystrokes that welcome a slow-burning, reverberant moment of tranquility. It is an ideal bookend to the album; something that embodies all the turns and trials that Sigur Rós present on the preceding tracks and repackages it into something coherent and memorable that shrinks into something miniscule. When “8” wraps up, it feels as if you can put the album in your pocket.

For three decades now, Sigur Rós have been one of the most recognizable bands in a grand discourse about what music can do outside of its popular form. How can a couple of bright-eyed musicians conjure the most incredible emotions out of rock fans without using most of the common tools of rock music? What possibilities arise without the use of conventional language or without the strictures of tempo? Sigur Rós’s expansive music demonstrates the breadth of potentialities, and their latest album contributes greatly to their discography. ÁTTA is a welcome return to form and beyond for the band, ten years removed from their last studio release, and their partnership with a 41-piece orchestra is both logical and awe-striking. It’s a significant milestone, a step towards musical immortality that Sigur Rós feel destined for after having blown the possibilities for post-rock wide open.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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