A trek all the way to Brooklyn last Tuesday to catch Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós on their first US tour in four years proved more than worth the effort. Seattle’s Perfume Genius opened.
Following 2008′s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, the closest Sigur Rós had come to releasing a pop record, the band disappeared into a hiatus for an unspecified period of time. This year they reemerged with Valtari, a gorgeous set of ambient songs unfurling in slow motion; a record that is essentially anti-pop. How exactly they would handle a tour behind such a record was anybody’s guess. As it turns out, the answer lies in a back-to-basics approach for the band. This was an evening light on the pop direction of Með suð and Jónsi’s solo record, and heavy on the expertly crafted slow-build post-rock that made Sigur Rós a legendary band in the first place.
Mike Hadreas and band, aka Perfume Genius, bore the unfortunate task of being the opening set between an eager audience and a long-awaited Sigur Rós show. Hadreas’ fragile piano pop is hardly meant for an outdoor summer stage in the first place, but he and an accompanying keyboardist and drummer didn’t stand a chance against this particular crowd. The band took the inattentive and sometimes obnoxious audience in stride, soldiering on and even cracking jokes to the few who were actually listening. In the end though, this was delicate and lyrically heavy music which would be much better suited to a dark club and an interested audience. An A for effort at least.
The reemergence of Sigur Rós was clearly the moment everyone was waiting for, and the band (all eleven touring members) were greeted with rapturous applause as they took the stage. Three huge screens wrapping the stage lit up with the green glow of the video for lead Valtari single “Ekki múkk.” Faithful to its album counterpart, the song materialized and floated forth without ever really taking flight. It was a breathtaking exercise in restraint. From there was “Varúð,” another Valtari track more in line with the classic Sigur Rós formula: a slow buildup to a peak of pounding drums and wailing guitar. This would conclude the Valtari portion of the night. These mere two songs from the band’s new LP were followed up with thirteen more back catalog songs, drawing heavily from adored records like Takk… and Ágætis byrjun. The band seemed to acknowledge the challenge of translating songs so reliant on ambiance and atmosphere at the type of outdoor shows they booked for this tour. One could say they took the easy way out, but Valtari is very much a late-night headphones record, and it’s perfectly fair of the band to keep it that way. Opting for their more immediately thrilling older material was the right choice.
And was it ever thrilling. Sigur Rós’ primary three members (multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson decided to sit this tour out) were joined on stage by eight additional musicians on violin, brass, guitar and more. The expanded lineup is necessary for what the band creates during their live shows. Listening at home to a song like “Svefn-g-englar,” one is likely to experience the urge to turn it up as loud as possible and become physically immersed in its sweep and grandeur. This is exactly the band’s aim in concert. Unlike groups who seek to overwhelm the audience with sheer force of volume (not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily), Sigur Rós takes you over with the richness and scope of its sound. Jónsi’s gorgeous, haunting falsetto and bowed guitar take center focus. His instrument alternately sings and wails, hums and shreds. His technique on the guitar is one of few that could truly be called unique. With a cello bow he draws sounds which are simultaneously violent, beautiful and unlike anything else. Jónsi conjures chaos, but it’s a comforting chaos which his angelic voice floats above and reigns in. He and the forceful propulsion of Georg Hólm’s bass and Orri Páll Dýrason’s pounding drums are at the core of what makes the band’s peaks so thrilling. They know how to properly manipulate the quiet moments in between too, maintaining both a sense of tension and ethereal prettiness. Fleshing out the band’s core sound with the addition of a talented and versatile collection of touring musicians is what allows a Sigur Rós show to become the experience that it is though. The interweaving of backup vocals, strings, horns, organs, bells and other sounds with the bombast of the core trio creates the show’s colorful, dramatic and unforgettable sweep.
It was an incredible sounding concert, made all the more enjoyable by visual accompaniment and a perfect outdoor atmosphere. The aforementioned massive screens had a series of abstract but fitting visuals projected onto them, punctuated by black and white footage of the band from tiny cameras placed strategically around the stage (reminiscent of the method by which last year’s concert film Inni was captured). The sun was setting on a picturesque summer evening as Sigur Rós took the stage, and the buzzing of cicadas in the trees crept into the music during the quietest moments. It was among the most cinematic nights of live music you could ask for, with the band firing on all cylinders. “Olsen Olsen” retained its dramatic thunder, “Hoppípolla” was joyous as ever, and the climaxes of “Festival” and “Popplagið” could’ve realistically torn a hole in the sky. In all of its facets, Sigur Rós’ set was an astounding two hours of music. Surely some of the best you’ll be able to see this summer.