out on 5.29
Impressionist soundscapes. Ambient climaxes. Splendor in all of its ebbs and flows. That’s been the image Iceland post-rock spectres Sigur Ros (named after leader Jonsi’s newborn sister) have carefully cultivated over the past 15 years. You can’t help but picture wide sweeping landscapes when you close your eyes and let those elegiac chords suspend your subconscious. Hence why its music, since 1999’s ironically titled Agaetis byrjun (“an all right start”), has been licensed to virtually every and anything ranging from the more poignant scenes of Vanilla Sky, BBC’s Planet Earthand yes even an episode of CSI:Miami(at least it wasn’t NCIS:Anchorage). Point being: Hollywood’s music supervisors need not look that far across the pond to plug in some ready made tears. Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Heima, a 2007 documentary of their emotional homecoming, knows they oppose any form of corporate greed — especially Alcoa’s bauxite activities. So why is their music proliferated on such a wide scale? Obviously, with physical sales waning, bills have to be paid. But more importantly, it nourishes the natural wonder we all desire to tap back into — standing and listening in awe of our ephemeral existence.
Once the group announced in January 2010 that they had scrapped a year’s worth of recording sessions, things began to look a bit dire. Jonsi pressed a well-received solo album, Go, and once again contributed his musical vision to Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo. Seemingly out of nowhere enigmatic bassist Georg Holm announced in late March that Valtari would literally “steamroll” onto deluxe pre-order. Critical aspirations should be expected when he also said, “now I can honestly say that it’s the only Sigur Ros record I have listened to for pleasure in my own house after we’ve finished it.” Johnny Depp categorically states that he has never seen any film he’s acted in — mainly because he’s always ahead of the curve, plotting his next fantastic mutation. I think you know where I’m going with this.
No doubt that every song on Valtari is beautiful, lush and understated at the most startling moments. We expect that. The whole idea of keeping a progressive act together is to maintain a certain aesthetic while simultaneously adopting a whole new persona. Maintaining continuity while deconstructing your “sound.” At least that’s what the legends say. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (translation: "With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly")is certainly in my top ten albums of the last decade. Every song encapsulates and expounds upon a piano motive or string arrangement which truly obscures reality for the better. A model worth emulating, just not too closely.
The opening organ interlude for lead single “Ekki múkk” sounds like a slightly muckier version of deep track “Straumnes” off their aforementioned album. It’s not just the tone itself that feels eerily similar. The Hopelandic gibberish that trickles in right after adopts a nearly identical pattern to the high octave falsetto at the coda of “Ara Batur.” They decided to leave out the epic brass crescendo to make this version feel more insular and open-ended. Hard to say if that was the right choice. It’s almost as if they are consciously remixing one of their more “commercial” songs for a new tempered audience. Scare away the posers and play to the rest. Many have attempted it before but to little avail.
“Varúð” gently nudges us toward aquatic bliss. Jonsi still can hold a high note longer than a castrati. His trademark bowed electric guitar caterwauls through dissonance like a sharpened butter knife. “ Rembihnútur” would have felt right at home on 2002’s () and still holds its own here via faded loops that gradually burnish away their fuzz to form a sonorous nursery rhyme with booming drums launching it on the way out.
The last half of the album languishes in choral limbo. This unavoidable cooldown could have derailed previous efforts, but they always found a way to soar above it all. Just listen to “All Alright” and “ Varðeldur” and tell me with a straight face that they aren’t approaching carbon copy. “Valtari” and “Fjögur píanó” conclude the ceremony with an elongated whimper instead of distinctive solace. It’s sadly underwhelming.
I love Sigur Ros. Even if they haven’t challenged themselves. Maybe with Jonsi doing his own thing for a few years in between there wasn’t enough time to push it as far as they could. I hate to apply a Lebron analogy to any situation. He’s the MVP. They’re arguably the most prolific post-rock group of our generation. Sometimes both have trouble stepping outside their comfort zones.
Stream 'Valtari' in its entirety tonight.