By Hollister Dixon
There’s something remarkable about the career trajectory of Sigur Rós. Their lyrics and song titles are almost entirely in Icelandic, except for ( ), their 2002 album sung entirely in Vonlenska (otherwise known as Hopelandic), a completely made-up language. Icelandic is an impossible language that a scant 300,ooo people speak – to put that into perspective, the population of Portland is just under 600,000, so if every Icelandic-speaking person lived in this city, there would still be another half of the city that didn’t understand a word of it. And yet, for the last 20 years, the band have built an obsessive and adoring fanbase all over the world who have fallen in love not with the words frontman Jónsi is singing, but with the sound of his angelic falsetto, the sound of a guitar being played with a cello bow, and the breathtaking landscapes they create with their music. They are emotional on the same level as bands like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor: the words may not exist (or, in Sigur Rós’ case, may not be understandable), but they’ve gotten unbelievably good at emoting without the need for a shared language.
I first saw Sigur Rós play at Edgefield Amphitheater four years ago, on a warm late-summer’s day. That show sold out in the blink of an eye, and I was thrilled to finally get to see the band. They – that night “they” being the band of four plus six horn and string players – transported everyone on that hillside to a completely different world without a lick of stage banter or any real stage presence at all. No over-the-top showmanship, no humongous light show, just pure precision from start to finish.
Sigur Rós are currently on a tour that almost seems like a challenge to the band: no opener, no horns or strings – just the band, now a three-piece, playing two sets of new, unheard, and reworked old songs. In stripping away the orchestral elements, they force themselves to rethink and adapt those massive songs for just three people, meaning they can no longer rest on violins and trumpets to reach the grandeur they’re capable of.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the humongous light show I alluded to a couple paragraphs ago. Don’t take that mention as disparaging. It’s easy to view an array of LED screens and pretty blinking lights as a crutch, but in the hands of capable musicians, it turns a great show into a breathtaking one. While the evening the band created at the Keller Auditorium was gorgeous on its own, the light show that the band have created was – and I say this without hyperbole – the single best production I’ve ever seen. It was elaborate but somehow still tasteful, with something new and unique used for each song. The lighting array spanned the entire length and depth of the stage, with two LED curtains and skeletal lighting arrays set up from one end of the stage to the other. Each song felt like an entirely different experience, none of which even bordering on gauche or meaningless. At one point, near the beginning of the show, the band relocated to the right side of the stage, with a matching projection of a small boy only in their corner. At another point, a line of birds made out of white lines flew around above the stage until two of the members of the band left, leaving only drummer Orri and a single bird overhead, which too departed when he left the stage. There were many, many moments just like this, where the band’s breathtaking music was paired with an equally breathtaking and elaborate dance of light and fog. I could spend the entirety of this review talking about just how stunning this aspect of the show was. It was pure bliss.
Oh, but the music was just as stunning. We only got a couple glimpses of new music, at the beginning of each set: a song simply titled “Á” opened the first, and their recently unveiled “Óveður” began the second. We even got an ancient ( ) b-side, “Smáskifa“, which began its life as a two song reworking of “Untitled #1 (Vaka)” before morphing into an entirely different song, found on the 5″ CD single of “Vaka”. The rest of the set, though, was comprised of a career-spanning look back at the last 15 years of the band’s life (though they omitted their debut, Von), with a massive five songs from ( ). Hearing these songs with just the power of three people felt exhilarating, right down to the dynamic drum machine beats that have been added to the landscape of Ágætis Byrjun standout “Staralfur”. If I could bring myself to criticize anything about the whole show, it would be that the setlist wasn’t quite dynamic enough; sure, we got “Ny Batteri”, a brooding and occasionally jazzy bruiser, but it stood as the only real middle-ground between the bruising drum blasts of “Kveikur” and the woozy twinkling of Sæglópur”. Really, though, it doesn’t actually matter: these songs each felt like completely different worlds, beautifully blending into each other without a single seam truly showing.
One of the best parts about the new three-piece version of this band is that stripping down the band helps showcase the prowess of each musician.It’s never been a secret that Jónsi is a talented shredder, but it also brought out just how dynamic of a drummer Orri is, deftly handling the nuances in the rhythm section of each song with nimble precision. It was equally fun watching the same precision from bassist Georg Hólm, who managed to cut through the beauty and chaos with his near-hypnotic basslines. I had as much fun watching him (and his occasional e-bow) on the far end of the stage as I did watching Jónsi punish his Les Paul with his signature cello bow and, near the end of the show, with the floor of the stage.
If this tour is meant to test whether or not the music of Sigur Rós stands up without the orchestral elements and determine if the band and their brass and string section are inextricably linked, the answer seems to be obvious: even without the small orchestra, and even with a light array that would make Trent Reznor blush, they make and perform some of the most beautiful, compelling music on the planet. We as listeners may not understand the words Jónsi is singing, but the emotional palette he’s working with is universal.