How to prepare the uninitiated (SR buffs are fond of comparing ‘first times’) for the album with no name ( ) ?
After the masterpiece that was Ágætis Byrjun – their second album – this at first seems to lack that album’s glorious versatility. ( ) is a less faceted construct – less ambitious in some respects. Rather than continue to explore, to break yet more new ground, it’s as if Sigur Rós have decided to consolidate for a while, with the result that this album seems almost wilfully monothematic. Quite apart from its almost disdainful refusal to assist (no title, minimal artwork, no tracklist, no notes, no lists of which genius twiddled which knobs on which track), there’s no avoiding the explicit metaphysical challenge contained in the awkward space between those blunt parentheses: make of this what you will – only the music matters. And – especially – don’t try to make sense of the lyrics, which are in neither English nor Icelandic, but in what they call Hopelandic (except that’s a translation of an Icelandic word with ‘von’ in it, which means ‘hope’) – which is, I suppose, the equivalent of those fine folk from Hope (that’s west of Faith, north-east of Charity) crooning too-ra-lei-lo as they jig around the burning wicker man. Neo-folk, actually, has been used to describe what they do, along with slo-core, electro-ambient, post-rock, and similar epithets as applied to the likes of Mogwai and Low, although if we’re looking for provenance, I’d suggest going further back – via Cocteau Twins – to Pink Floyd and (yes, even so) the Beatles, if not further still to Palestrina and Machaut (do I hype or do I hype?) And lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s eerily sensual falsetto is the closest any of us is going to get (in this life, at least) to the experience of cowering by the gates to the underworld whilst some scary shaman simultaneously invokes and placates the even more scary gatekeepers.
Sigur Rós is a majorly divisive band in that there do exist one or two lost souls who find them irritatingly sanctimonious. You don’t have to be into Bhutto and Tarkovsky’s movies to like them, but it helps. Track 5, for example, must stand out, tempo-wise, as one of the most attenuated in musical history (is it possible for a drummer to drum more slowly than this without disappearing for a pee between beats?) – but as long as it evokes the images that it does – in my case, vast white spaces, shimmering with immanence, sadness, yearning, illuminated by the faintest peripheral flashes of a kind of stubborn optimism (tell me about it) – this glacier-like slowness is the completely appropriate dynamic adjunct, no more, no less. And if this makes them sound a bit New Age-y and whalesong-by-moonlight, think again: the final track here, which begins as rhapsodically as the rest, builds to an absolutely astonishing climax that would meet the approval of the hardest-core Iron Maiden nut, and has blisters erupting on your fingers in sympathy for goggi the bass.
If all poetry aspires to the condition of music, then all music aspires to the condition of silence. Sigur Rós have already begun flirting with that nirvana-like silence which all music post-Cage was supposed to address. The ‘18 seconds before dawn’ of their first album, ‘Von’, is here extended to a prolonged 30-second demarcation zone between the album’s two ‘sides’. Some will say this is just another example of the creeping trend to nostalgic digital vinylisation. I say it doesn’t take half a minute to turn a record over.
Listen. What do you hear?