Monday, May 28th, 2012
Review of Sigur Rós’ Valtari
Lilja BirgisdottirConsidering how otherworldly a starting point they began at, way back with their 1997 debut Von and their breakout 1999 album Agætis byrjun, it’s remarkable how accessible – relatively, at least – Sigur Rós have gotten over the past decade plus without really compromising any of what makes them so unique. Though 2002’s () closed with a what they called “The Pop Song”, it was 2005’s Takk… and 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust that saw the Icelandic quartet really elevating their melodicism to the level of their flair for beauty and the dramatic.
The band went on a hiatus of sorts following Með suð, yet still managed to diffuse the veil of mystery even further with Inni, the band’s double-live set which captured them at their most raw and primal, and frontman Jonsi’s solo debut Go, which found him singing in English for the first time and while still lyrically opaque, at least you could understand what he was saying (this doesn’t apply to those who speak Icelandic and/or Hopelandic). So if you were to plot their artistic trajectory on a graph – as you do – then it would be reasonable to assume that Valtari, their first album in over four years, would be as immediate and tuneful a record as the band had ever crafted. Reasonable, and completely wrong.
The best signpost that pointed to what Valtari would be was 2009’s Riceboy Sleeps, released by Jonsi & Alex (Alex being Alex Somers of Parachutes and Jonsi’s boyfriend), which was a largely ambient collection that, while pretty, was ultimately too ephemeral to really make an impression. Valtari comes from that same place of thoughtful and drifting airiness, but is much more focused and carries the sort of emotional and musical heft that one expects of a Sigur Rós record.
Complaints that it’s too atmospheric or leisurely paced aren’t entirely misplaced, particularly for those more attuned to their recent releases; those who’ve been following the band since the beginning will find the more free-form compositional style familiar. It doesn’t shortchange the songwriting – every song has a solid melodic core to anchor it – but does concentrates on the sound just as much, maybe more. If you crave the more visceral, body blow side of the band then perhaps cue up Inni as only “Varúð” here really enters that territory, but if you’re able to take the time to stop, sit back, and appreciate the exquisite elegance and detail to be found in the decay of a single piano note, the rasp of a cymbal scrape, the anticipation in a breath, or even the faux-vinyl static crackles that dust the front half of the album, there’s still transcendence to be found.
NPR has been streaming Valtari in advance of its formal release tomorrow. DIY, The Herald, and Grapevine have interviews with the band, the last of which confirms that keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson will not be touring with the band this Summer, including their August 1 show at Echo Beach.
Valtari was introduced by way of a video for the single “Ekki Muk” which was essentially an animated version of the album art – perfectly fitting for the song but not very exciting – but the band have unveiled a much more ambitious video project to go along with the record: a dozen filmmakers were given a modest budget to work with and asked to create visuals for a song from the record, free of creative control from the band. The first of them, for “Ég Anda” by Ragnar Kjartansson, was released next week and the others will follow through the Summer, a new one every couple weeks. And while the “Ég Anda” is currently geoblocked in Canada, I’m told that it should be unshackled very shortly, so check back.
Also imported from Sweden but arriving a bit sooner is the self-titled debut from Amanda Mair. A new MP3 from the record, out June 5, has been made available, there’s a video session to watch at The Line Of Best Fit, and an interview to read at Coup de main.