Remarkable for its ethereal musical maturity, the Icelandic chamber rock band Sigur Rós (“Victory Rose”) in three extended albums has re-shaped notions of the potentially synergistic cross currents of trance minimalism and orchestrated pop music. Founded in 1994 by guitarist and vocalist Jón Bór Birgisson, drummer Ágúst (later replaced by Orri Páll Dýrason) and bassist Georg Hólm, Sigur Rós hasn’t so much evolved, up or down, as expanded: the group’s sonic experimentations transmute outwardly. An icy Radiohead without the guitar egos, a Spiritualized without the freely falling dope, Sigur Rós is a cerebral, ecstatic combo that celebrates density of execution and hypnotic airiness. Positively mesmerizing.
Much of the band’s spooky beauty is generated by the band’s founder and leader, the glacially cool, one-eyed gay Birgisson, whose otherworldly space vocalese resembles a castrato’s pleading for entrance to Shangri-La. The application of a cello bow to his already innovative guitar work — atmospheric, effects-burdened and echoic — on the long love songs produces alternate peaks and valleys of opacity and transparency. The androgynous and lamenting singing oozes out (in Icelandic) simple verbal games, repeated names and places, or partial hopes for transcendence. Not that the average listener can tell, but the lyrics on ( ), the group’s masterpiece, are in a made-up language he calls “Hopelandic.” The rest of the young band are seasoned experts at ambient soundscapes that contain worlds of demobilized consciousness. Sigur Rós ably moves from one luminous mood to another, from one pale dream to another.
Von (“Hope”), a quietly meditative exposition of burgeoning philosophies, is less iridescent, less aching than later releases, so much that the band, along with friends, reshaped the songs on the impossible-to-acquire Von Brigoi. The original, however delinquent in chasing melody or securing finality, hints at future sonic depths: swirling patterns, impressive musicianship and ambitious ideologies. This is a documentary of restlessness. There are singular improvisational networks that may or may not get worked out — one huge difference is that the songs relax the symphonic elaborations and length of later work — but the chilly album is never dull or dull-minded. The historic implications include fellow countrywoman Björk, Spiritualized and the soothing fevers of the Stone Roses’ first. The music could breathe a little more — there’s oxygen up there, right? — as the funereal angst and lugubrious timbre and tempo nudge listeners to thoughts of last wills and testaments. Von doesn’t really succeed as a whole: eeriness, gloom and sonic texture are elevated over song structure, resolution or strong authorial presence. No wonder Iron Maiden and Metallica are two of the band’s favorite predecessors. This is heavy music without the artillery.
The ambience gets pressure-cooked for Ágætis Byrjun, a 70-minute collection of soothing marathon tone poems. If the first album was Eno’s Music for Airports en route to Laplandia, this shimmeringly trippy music is prog rock and space rock that filters out narcissism and excess; The Book of Dead with the hilarious moments deleted. This is high seriousness. There are no apologies, no holding back, no possibility of histrionics. The music almost negates Von‘s tenuous compositional grasp: the storytellers take their languid time as the pulse is slowed. New drummer Dýrason either time-keeps death or becomes a rhythmic leader. The most dramatic change here is the insinuation of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson into the seamless dream music. Amid the band’s introverted virtuosity — tape loops, buried guitar notes, rhythmic shifts and synthesizers — her keyboards add punch, drama and color, not to mention simple pianistic melodies, especially on “viðar vel til loftárása.” At their most diffuse and pretentious, the band might remind a surly listener of middle Moody Blues or late Verve with strings. The minimalism doesn’t include modulation; the vocalizing harmonies would fit commercials for, say, Apple or Coca- Cola; the reflective iciness of silence isn’t always well used. But when the music is fully operational — as on the title track (whose title translates as “OK Beginning”) and “svefn-g-englar” (“Sleepwalking”) — the potential for greatness is obvious. “Ný batteri” (“New Batteries”), replete with Bach-style brass, powerhouse percussion and a vocal that could belong to dying swans, is the band’s best song, a no-holds barred meditation that stands midway between paralytic immobilization and conscience-stricken perambulations. “Hiartað hamast (bamm bamb bam)” is a gorgeous scare fest.
Ágætis Byrjun includes two cuts each from its surrounding EPs, making both Svefn-G-Englar and Ný Batteri somewhat superfluous, especially since the latter contains two songs recorded as codas to Hilmarsson’s intriguing but shallow Angels of the Universe soundtrack. That said, one of the two live songs on Svefn-G-Englar, a re-working of Von‘s “Syndir Guðs,” is particularly haunting.
Even stranger, with more strings and piano, ( ) is an informational cipher that without credits, titles, lyrics or liner notes. The eight long songs carry dilatory decision-making to the extreme: Icelanders may take their time, but when the job is done, you know it is perfect. The sound is airier and rawer than before; it’s less melodic and accessible. The titular parens suggest an aside, something that either is unimportant or a potential clarification. Emptied, of course, they maintain both pristine inviolability and ambiguity. And so the music here seems new, severely tinkered over, but at its shiny best also organic and familiar. For all the obvious creativity, the album embodies the band’s profound conservatism: they do not tinker; they resist death. If something is a good idea, if it works within a stable environment, Sigur Rós builds on it. The guiding principle is a renunciation of novelty and humor. The band shares a love of Leonard Cohen, and nowhere does this seem more evident than in Track Four, an understated fugue with bass drone, intuitive guitars and zigzag tragedies of breathless lyricism, a song of crowded corridors and dark sofas and intentional silence. Choked perfection.
A trio of pieces composed on commission for a dance performance Ba Ba / Ti Ki / Di Do, highlighted by eerie electronica and the metallic clip clop of ballet shoes, seems like a work in progress. Choreographer Merce Cunningham can be heard croaking a few sounds near the end, in much the same way that Laurie Anderson used another aging prophet, William Burroughs. The songs have a crystalline sheen that prohibits worldly intrusions; there’s more engagement to be had in the band’s work with Icelandic folklorist and singer Steindór Andersen. Rimur, both the album and the concept, are simple and elegant songs native to and suggestive of their country: cool, detached, direct and gentlemanly.
Equally detached, if at times also burdened by a futile ascent towards heaven (all gods perished after Nero’s fiddling), Takk… resembles the movie The Aristocrats: a narrow selection of material given killer performances. The vocals are still breathy and tormented; the rhythm section is tauter; the guitar work is even more acutely rendered, if at times given secondary status after the increased studio swellings. Seven of the eleven songs exceed five minutes. Length was a positive thing for the band, allowing it to stretch out youthful ideas over improvisations that seemed alert, spontaneous and vivacious. Here, length only means repetitious backdrops for simple rising and falling action, like a Max Steiner score from the 1940s. Takk… is mature and responsible music, but as civilized and polished as Paul Heinreid offering a cigarette to a shadow-veiled Bette Davis: those days are gone.