Music

Icelandic Bliss

Sigur Rós Transcend in 'Takk...'

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Sigur Rós - Ready to ice you, sucka
Sigur Rós
w/Amina

Wed Sept 28, Paramount,

8 pm, $25–$35, all ages.

There are a number of reasons why Sigur Rós wait until their songs are complete to add the lyrics, not the least of which is singer Jónsi Birgisson. He's terrible with words.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The band's first two records were sung in Icelandic, and much of the craft behind the language is doubtless lost in interpretation, something akin to a verbatim reading of Dostoyevsky in English. That said, have you seen some of these translations?

"I explode out and the peace is no more/Bathed in new light/I cry and cry—disconnected/An unused brain put on breasts/And fed by sleepwalkers."

Yikes. Reading what "Svefn-G-Englum," the groovy dinging song that opened 1999's Ágætis Byrjun, amounts to on the page, it's no wonder Birgisson now uses his "hopelandic" multilingual hybrid to substitute for actual lyrics.

Over the phone, drummer/keyboardist Orri Páll Dyrason clarifies the language, or lack thereof, and how it fits into his band's songcraft. "We were so happy that we had gotten this response from people," he says of the post-Ágætis hype. "They might not understand the words, but they understand our music."

Sigur Rós's spaced-out bliss, replete with a cache of instruments (hammer dulcimer, anyone?) and multi-tracked effects, is evocative enough on its own that connecting with the songs doesn't necessarily mean comprehending them literally. The quartet saw this in the throngs of fans that began forming outside of their native Iceland, swooning to the gently humming organs, piercing feedback, and expansive askew compositions. They might as well have been playing instrumentals, for what it was worth.

So with the follow-up, 2002's enigmatic (), the band decided they didn't need things like titles or lyrics. "That way people could put their own meaning to each song," Dyrason explains. "We thought lyrics might destroy that for lots of people, so we kept [using hopelandic]."

What the band calls "hopelandic" is admittedly gibberish, nonsense phrases Birgisson sings as placeholders while the song is formed musically. Previously, it was later changed to actual lyrics, but with the two most recent albums, the literal meanings remain impenetrable.

It might sound hollow to some, but this is actually a sublime quality that makes Sigur Rós one of the most intriguing bands currently making music. Effectively, the quartet presents two major challenges to rock convention—the importance of words lies not in their meaning, and the voice can be harnessed as an auxiliary instrument. The latter point can be heard in numerous moments on the new Takk...

Towards the end of the album's "Sé Lest," most of the instrumental swell cuts out as multiple Jónsis playfully bounce back and forth off of one another, each carrying their own distinct melody, bopping about to a gentle lullaby like lightning bugs in a jar. A choir carries the main melody of "Meo Blódnasir," while on "Gong," Birgisson and a piano seem to vie in a crescendoing race to see who can hit the highest note.

The list goes on, but vocal trickery is stuff we've seen the band do before. What makes Takk... worth returning to is the ambiguous emotional space it occupies. The chimes of Ágætis were filled with hope and light. () droned and sulked through a dark night of the soul. Takk... is something of a cautious middle ground.

The processional march of "Glósóli" shuffles through bright bells and keys, building to an eruption of pummeling guitar distortion—easily the loudest moment the band has crafted to date. It is dark, intense, and practically seething with rage. Except other factors make the listener pause and consider that this isn't anger, but euphoria.

When the band plays Seattle there will certainly be plenty of spectacle—abstruse thermal-imaging videos projected on a scrim, Birgisson playing his guitar with a violin bow, opening band Amina sitting in as Sigur Rós's backing string quartet. But even if the visual spectacle was absent, the devotees would still be transfixed, since Sigur Rós lovers are music lovers first and foremost.

Asked about his thoughts on the fan devotion, Dyrason seems taken aback. "Um, I don't know why that is," he says. "Maybe it's when people don't understand the lyrics, they think about something personal. And it's good that people can relate that way, that our music san help them bring out those emotions."

editor@thestranger.com
 

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