Music Reviews

Sigur Rós Valtari

(XL Recordings) Rating - 8/10

Ever since Sigur Rós extended their invitation to come into their cosmic, frosty universe a little over a decade ago with Agaetis Byrjun, there’s been a significant development in the way their audience has been warmly receptive to their craft. After providing what was essentially a breakthrough in shaping ambient soundscapes into something thrilling, there’s been a profusion of producers and musicians simulating and deconstructing its componing parts into larger, more complex configurations. Yet through the years, the Icelandic foursome has gradually devolved, seemingly lessening their progressive output after stretching it as far as it could go. And even if their mystique no longer prevails – Iceland still being an imaginary exile for those fed up with urbanity, counter progress and life played in fast-forward – it continues to exist in the realm of myth, in which it is inconceivable to accept it as being anything less than unbelievable.

Many of this relates to how we idolize anything that’s foreign to us, how we trek forwards, blinders on, with benighted expectations. It constantly happens to us; especially in the way we associate how certain music should sound in the context of its envisioned surroundings. Right from the start, Sigur Rós embodied a myopic view of what it is to sound pretty, a descriptor the band tried to debunk in the past until they realized it was a lost fight. A curious detail, as the music Sigur Rós makes requires great investment, and yet is right away impressionable to most. Not to dissuade the plain fact that it was brought amongst themselves, both in technique and artistry. Takk ultimately plowed every last inch of snow from the wrathful avalanche that was ( ), a record that skyrocketed their popularity; not to mention, it propelled the precious folklore they now had to justify. Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust implied a change in direction by trying to write shorter songs, but it also brought their indulgences to the fore – every jittery, sugar kick hook didn’t really balance out their fastidious attachment to write epic, portentous hymns.

Sigur Rós had finally exhausted every possible gimmick in the post-rock handbook – a made up dialect, chorus vocals, rousing buildups, symphony collaborations and too much glockenspiel. It has been a quiet four years for most of the members except for Jonsi Birgisson, whose been trying his hand at more collaborative projects with the likes of his significant other Alex Somers, Nico Mulhy and Cameron Crowe. Valtari, their long-awaited joint band effort, revolves to realign their focus instead of undergoing any drastic transformation. If Ég Anda, the opening track, were to decree its overall mood, than it’s one of buoyancy, one they’re well familiar with – a muted, measured bass tone festers through an alluring disarray of angelic vocals, twinkling guitar effects and a tremulous synth effect. It almost takes fifteen minutes until Valtari finally dispatches its first, and one and only, stomping climax, as it does in Varúð; peculiarly, the build up is actually consequential and succinct, a necessary obstacle to overpass its verdant slopes and contorns. Its quieter moments are more distinguished – the startling, rusted strings; Jonsi’s penetrating falsetto; the faint, choral mantra that rises once the upsurge turns brittle as it goes into a decline.

Valtari translates to steamroller in Icelandic, a designation Sigur Rós firmly believes depicts how it leisurely rolls along from beginning to end. Not to circumscribe anyone’s imagination, but it seems to have sparked a strong opinion from those who can’t associate a heavy piece of machinery with such splendor. As a literal connotation, the steamroller delineates a path with non-threatening force. You begin to see the allegory once the second side of Valtari decreases the intensity little by little – Dauðalogn is that last mantric invocation into an otherworldly paradise, seemingly giving the impression of going somewhere. And yet it meanders, proving the album’s weakest point. But as it merges with Varðeldur, it sinks into a considerable hollow; lost and damned, it begins to trace its way inward. Jonsi hums in a slower oscillation while a piano’s keys are laid ever so lightly.

It bears out how Valtari was never meant to be post-rock in the traditional sense, but one that’s expressed in a classical vocabulary. The last fifteen minutes are defiant in spite of the ponderous pacing, proving that restraint doesn’t always have to mean playing it safe. The noirish title track is full of rich modest nuances, exposing a bioluminescent bay as if played by an orchestra of chirping crickets and fireflies. It ends marvelously with Fjögur Pianó, a minimalist composition with minute variations in cadence that are almost indiscernible, yet every repeated note fills every moment of silence. Valtari may seem to project a grainy paint finish, capturing every decaying frame as if about to fall into a standstill. But it’s just levelling a common path, forging a new way forward.