Icelandic band follows own path
November 15, 2007
In a land of music, where almost anything goes, Sigur Rós does not stand above all others. Instead, they float along on their own strange island at sea, not to be mistaken for their native country, Iceland. The group is familiar in the styling of Coldplay, Aqualung and Radiohead, but you’ll still find it hard to wrap your head around how to describe it. In their latest double release, Hvarf/Heim, Sigur Rós (meaning “Victory Rose”) has crafted a group of unique, minimalist songs, orchestrated carefully by singer/guitarist jónsi which sound as cold as their native country’s name.
Hvarf/Heim isn’t much of an actual studio release, but more of a rarities/live album. Heim can be considered more of the “album” aspect, as it features a list of new, unreleased acoustic pieces.
Contrary to what you might think, this is not an acoustic guitar driven set. To Sigur Rós, acoustic means piano, mallets and a hell of a lot of strings. The result is a trance-like mix of songs that ring clear with a truth and honesty not common among music standards. “Starálfur” stands out among them with arpeggiated piano verses that trade off with the vocals. The music in Heim does not accompany the vocals, but plays like another member of the band, which is a phenomenal thing to accomplish.
Hvarf features five songs recorded live during the band’s last tour of Iceland and is the heaviest of the two discs. Meddled with vibraphones and piano that serve as the disc’s “light” sounds, songs such as “I gaer” fool you into the mysterious lull of a xylophone, only to shock your eardrums by blasting powered electric guitars and busting snare drums “Salka” gives a familiar Radiohead vibe with a disjointed guitar intro followed by the high falsetto of jónsi’s eerily soothing vocals. Hvarf is composed with plenty of strings, such as “Von,” probably the disc’s highest achievement. Carefully crafted with violins hanging over clear vocal tones, an almost inaudible bass drum drives the song forward like a tribal chant.
And you’ll wonder if it is chant being sung while listening to jónsi crooning in somber tones and unrecognizable words. There is no English in Hvarf/Heim. Sigur Rós thrives on the native music of its country; therefore it is only appropriate they perform in its Icelandic language. Further seating themselves apart, jónsi also sings in Volenska (Hopelandic), a language he created that serves a purpose to enhance their music with vocal sounds, not language. The idea is that the voice becomes as part of the music, like any other instrument.
Hvarf/Heim is not for everyone. With minimalist style and general unfamiliarity, it will turn some off. But putting aside everything music is thought to be, and allowing the music to grab you, there is hardly anything else that can captivate you like Sigur Rós. In their ability to alienate, they are allowed complete creativity of their sound, and they wouldn’t want it any other way. If this is understood, neither will you.
Matthew Loosbrock is a student at UW-River Falls.