Why should you, the English speaker, care about a lethargic Icelandic band? Jón (Jónsi) Þór Birgisson (that little “Þ” norse doodad is pronounced “th” as in “think”) sings in Icelandic, and sometimes in a gibberish language he called Volenska. Most of the longs are 6+ minutes long and rarely top 100 beats per minute. Their newest record sounds like if Trent Reznor took downers and uppers simultaneously and headed into the studio for completely reasonable-length recording sessions.
You should care because among the confusion, therein lies beauty. The key to unlocking Sigur Rós’ music is processing the vocals as another instrument. With a four (now three) person band, Sigur Rós take advantage of scene-building beyond your typical guitar-bass-percussion-vocal arrangement.
Critics have dubbed Sigur Rós sound as “post-rock,” but their music isn’t post-anything. It’s both un-graspable and so very present. The unjust label – wholly lumping a casual fan’s listening experience on a tendency to enjoy classical meets rock ‘n’ roll – might turn a new listener away before he or she even starts. I want to dissect a few of Sigur Rós’ albums in the order that might appeal to a Stars of the Lid fan and/or a Slint fan. If you don’t know who either of those bands are, then just assume you’ve been transported to a rocket ship whose engines are ready to ignite at a snail’s pace – you’ll go somewhere, but not fast and very deliberately.
Start: Takk… (2005) Important Tracks: “Glósóli,” “Hoppípola,” and “Sæglópur”
Takk… has a mysterious cover and an easily identifiable title, which literally translates to “thanks.”
I would show any new Sigur Rós listener Takk… first for a few reasons.
- Glósóli & Hoppípola are insanely hook-laden. The bass in the former and the treble in the latter are immediate and identifiable. These two tracks should give you a bottom-end litmus test as to where to travel next. That is, to wax etherial or to turn more pop.
- There’s very little drone on Takk.... Drone is a musical idiom for sound exploration, noise development and mood waning. It’s not a pop record per se, but it shines poppy and relatively upbeat.
- It’s entirely in Icelandic, which means the lyrics are accessible to the native speaker and translatable for the non-speaker. The lyrics are staccato and metaphorical, which should provide a little challenge to piece together a narrative
Two Roads: Agætis Byrjun (1999) or Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008)
(this little doohickey [ð] is pronounced “th” as in “the)
If you’re listening by yourself: ask yourself what you did and what you didn’t like about Takk… If you: preferred the singles perhaps turn toward Agætis Byrjun, perhaps Sigur Rós’ most beloved album. “Svefn-g-englar” is a beautiful track almost tremendously dripping in histrionics. It leads right into “Starálfur,” which perhaps gave way to later singles in terms of hook. Specifically:
- Actively focus on the guitar parts. You’ll often hear Jónsi play his six-string with a bow à la Jimmy Page. It gives the sounds a very warm and fuzzy quality.
- Agætis Byrjun makes extensive use of Volenska and Icelandic. Not too off-putting.
- This collection of songs is considerably jazzier and more cohesive, but also there’s noise to break up the monotony. “Ny batterí” and “Olsen Olsen” have sections of free jazz and chatter among the warmth.
- Yes, that’s a fetus. Imagery abound.
If you: preferred the other songs not mentioned above, perhaps start with Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, whose tones tend to lean toward acoustic pop – and there’s even a song in English. I’ve also never heard a song in the time signature that “Gobbledigook” is in. Pretty awesome stuff. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust was a HUGE departure from Takk… and left the band in a void for 4 years before their next record. Specifically:
- It’s probably their least cohesive bunch of songs and probably came from too-quick a departure in sound. They’ve since honed it in and experimented within some relative confines.
- If you like sparsely mic’d acoustic guitar, this album is for you. It ceases to be “post-rock” in any form and tends instead to border on freak folk, made popular by Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective.
- “Með suð í eyrum” is the best track on this album, and is considerably less innovative than anything on Takk… or Agætis Byrjun.
- Naked man ass is a fun way to get yourself censored by Target. I don’t know if they did, or if Target even sold this record…but it’s a fun way to do it.
Anyway, listen to both of these records, but in either order depending on your preference.
Converge: Kveikur (2013) Important tracks: “Brennisteinn,” “Stormur,” and “Ísjaki”
This album is Sigur Rós’ most recent and their most immediate work. If you were to compare musical qualities on Kveikur to Agætis Byrjun or Takk…, you’d most likely assume that two different bands made these albums…and essentially that’s what happened. In between Valtari and Kveikur, keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson left to pursue what can be presumed something different. There’s a huge leap in sound without keys to hold it back. Sixteen years after their debut, Von, Sigur Rós found themselves at a directional impasse, and Kveikur was their jack hammer through the wall. It’s sill very Sigur Rós, but it’s also something very new and possibly their best collection since Agætis Byrjun.
- Think….Nine Inch Nails filtered through Jónsi’s production technique. The fuzz on the guitar is not soft anymore, but rather a heavy, meaty, angry output.
- It’s a lean collection. The track lengths don’t betray the thesis here: that Sigur Rós is up for a little mechanized assault on their sound. “Brennisteinn” is their best earworm since “Glósóli.”
- The percussion takes a center stage here, much more than on previous outings. There’s also a little throwback to Agætis Byrjun‘s post-scripts in between tracks. Instead of free jazz, it’s industrial decay.
- “Stormur” is wonderful. Jónsi’s vocals are clear and the mastering is dramatic. The percussion screams arena rock band, which is a venue that Sigur Rós thrives in. Say what you will about the dainty tracks, they also make big songs with big choruses.
Just to see why they released 2 albums in 2 years: Valtari (2012) Important Tracks: “Ekki múkk” and “Valtari”
This record is not bad by any means. It’s not particularly good either. Without Valtari there is no Kveikur, and it’s commendable that the band found themselves itching to perfect a new sound so quickly. It’s quite the punk aesthetic. This record, does tend to meander into formless sound, much like a classical drone piece. The tracks don’t particularly have a narrative or theme that varies like a contemporary classical track might.
- This album reminds me a of a death processional. If I’m in the saddest mood and want to listen to Sigur Rós, I have and will turned to Valtari as an average option. It’s not bad, I don’t want to describe an album as “torpid.”
- “Ég anda” borrows the bass tone from “Glósóli,” to a chilling and frustrating effect. The issue is that with such dedicated channels for each track and such a trademarked technique, the borrowed sounds dull the music quite a bit. The beginning of “Ekki múkk,” recalls “Intro” from Agætis Byrjun, which more often than not, will just lead me to play the older record again.
- I really do like this record, but I find it easier to criticize. There are very few bands that can make music like this: airy, formless and alien and still find beauty within the cracks.
- I’d like to categorize this record as the most extended an EP can be – it seems like a companion piece to the rest of the catalogue.
The most genre bending and almost the most difficult: ( ) [Parentheses or Untitled] (2002) Important Tracks: “Sigur 3 (Untitled),” “Sigur 7 (Untitled),” and “Sigur 8 (Untitled)”
Do you notice a pattern among those track titles? This album evolves on a few conspicuous planes that I’ll categorize below. But this album is essentially Sigur Rós’ slowcore album; it’s bordering on a slow, shoegazing record, too. It’s also their most least welcoming album because nowhere across its 72 minutes does Jónsi utter discernible language: this album is entirely in Volenska. You’ll say: but I don’t understand Icelandic anyway and you told me to treat the vocal as an instrument of sound. Because there’s no language, though, it’s hard to string together the emotion that Agætis Byrjun did. He has to spit actual gobbledigook over painfully beautiful soundscapes.
- It all but makes sense that the tracks are numbered and untitled (they have unofficial track names). It would also make sense as a single track, but that’s much harder to market. I tend to see the track changes as place markers or at least road signs that there might be a shift in mood or tempo, or both.
- I’ve always seen this albums as a parable for the human lifespan, so it also makes sense that the tracks are untitled and that this album is not in any discernible language. This concept is quite abstract, but with a few listens with this thought in mind, the metaphor makes some sense. I can’t even remember now if this was inductive or deductive.
- “Sigur 7” is the longest song they’ve written; also, the second half of this record is considerably more dense than the first half. I liken this to any task as it’s nearing completion. Or, to drag this metaphor out again, the opposite of the sensation of time as humans age. It’s a great reminder to slow down every once and awhile.
- The hook on “Sigur 3” sounds so familiar that I can’t believe it had never been written before. I liken that to the melody of Grizzly Bear’s “Knife.”
- This album leans heavily on early slowcore bands like Low and Codeine.
Last but certainly not least: Von (1997) Important Tracks: “Sigur Rós,” “Hún Jörð …,” and “Von”
This album is increasingly difficult because the trademarks that you’ll find on later Sigur Rós records aren’t fully formed here. This record is heavily tied to the traditional “post-rock” genre and I’m often reminded of Slint’s Spiderland with more reverb, especially when I listen to the title track or “Sigur Rós.” The band were to have said that they weren’t completely happy with the result of Von, but chose not to re-record it. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t because I love this record as the thesis statement they perfected two years later.
- I feel darkness when I listen to Von. It’s very indebted to ambient sound and its tracks are sad in the angriest way imaginable.
- If you’ve made it this far, chances are you really like Sigur Rós. Try to support them by I guess buying their music, but definitely by attending their shows whenever they come through. I haven’t seen them since Sveinsson left the band, but I’m sure they’ve found new ways to arrange some of the older songs. Their lighting design is also completely enthralling and a wonderful complement to the sound.
- Iceland, Scandinavia for that matter, has a proprietary texture to its music that’s impossible to duplicate. Innovation must come from isolation.
- Sigur Rós is simultaneously a portmanteau for “Victory Rose” and Jónsi’s younger sister’s first name. Icelandic is way cool.
- The band released a dance (?) remix album called Von brigði in 1998. Vonbrigði (without the space) translates to “disappointment,” which is how much of the band felt about this record. Icelandic is way cool.
Odds ‘n’ Ends: The band have released a handful of EPs, compilations, live albums and singles attached to other projects. Most notably:
- Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do (2004) – a collection of tracks released for Merce Cunningham’s dance project Split Sides. Interesting companion piece to show off a little range.
- Sigur 1 / Sigur 9 (2003) – includes “Sigur 9,” not released on ( ). A damn good track.
- Hvarf/Heim (2007) – is a double sided record consisting of “Hvarf,” unreleased studio tracks and “Heim,” a collection of songs recorded acoustically for the film Heima.
- Forget We Play Endlessly (2009) unless you’ve lost your other music
- Inni (2011) – a visual-live album; a concert film accompanied by a CD/LP box set of a concert before the release of Valtari. Includes “Lúppulagið,” a ( ) / Von era sounding piece to close the set.