Tues Nov 26, Moore Theatre,
8 pm, $21.
Call it a highly improbable anomaly, but Sigur Rós have become post-rock's great white hope. Their new album, ( ) (the cover looks like a toilet seat covered with black and white foliage), is the closest thing to Zen a major-label (or indie) rock band has released recently. No credits, band photos, song titles, lyrics, shout-outs, or logos soil its pristine surfaces. (Fans can go to www.sigur-ros.com to find out such minutiae; there, aspiring poets can contribute lyrics to Sigur Rós' sparsely worded songs.)
The Reykjavik, Iceland quartet's rise to commercial prominence (critics' love was practically a given) is one of the strangest--and most welcome--developments in modern rock (most of which is neither modern nor rock). That MCA (AKA the Music Cemetery of America) released ( ) in the U.S. makes the phenomenon even more bizarre. Indie snobbery has taken a vacation in Sigur Rós' case. The new album is selling like mad, and has cracked the top-20 list of bestsellers at the Tower Records chain; clerks claim all sorts of people--indie rockers, punks, technophiles--are buying it. Only Radiohead's SoundScan clout comes close to the mystifying pull Sigur Rós have had on the populace's wallets.
Why is this happening? Sigur Rós' music is the antithesis of what's shifting units now: the bulging-veined boorishness of mook rock; the bouncy inanity and goofy aggro of pop-punk; the gruff, attention-deficit-disorder jigginess of chartbound hiphop and whatever it is Britney and her clones do. No, ( ) actually fits more comfortably in the neoclassical bins of CD emporia than it does on "cutting-edge" radio playlists or TRL. The album's so-somber-it's-ecstatic grandeur ought to fill cathedrals, not tobacco-stained rock halls. Vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson sings like a goddamned angel over elegiac, glacial ballads that make Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Spiritualized sound as earthbound as Helmet.
These Icelanders tap into a heart-bursting vein so rich, it's almost impossible not to well up with tears, even though you have no idea what the songs are about. (I suspect they're full of epic sentiments about souls, love, volcanoes, and getting shitfaced on grain alcohol.) The fourth track on ( ), especially, tugs at heartstrings until they snap, catapulting your beloved organ out of your chest cavity and into deep space.
Another possible reason ( ) has become the post-rock fetish object of this fall lies in the album's comforting back-to-the-womb atmospherics. In a world bedeviled with religious intolerance, sectarian hatred, threats of terrorism, stock-market woes, imminent environmental catastrophe, George W. Bush, etc., people seek succor wherever they can find it. Sigur Rós offer soothing sonic icepacks for our beleaguered heads--with beautiful, sweeping strings attached.
Still, nothing really prepared us for ( )'s runaway success. When Sigur Rós' second album, Ágætis Byrjun, came out in 1999, it garnered nearly unanimous rave reviews and prizes like the Shortlist award. Mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine lavished beaucoup column inches on the group. Ágætis Byrjun (post-)rocked in a somewhat more conventional manner than does ( )--but perhaps because British cult imprint FatCat (rather than a multinational conglomerate) released it, Byrjun failed to enrapture the mass consciousness like its successor has. Now, with MCA's financial and promotional might behind them, Sigur Rós have the wherewithal to play North America's swankier theaters.
On the band's current tour, the lineup will expand to include a cellist, violinist, and keyboard and xylophone players. A fan who saw the group at the Beacon Theatre in New York said Sigur Rós played before blurry, ethereal images that shifted between positive and negative exposures and moved in sync with the flamboyant light show. Seattle can expect to hear both old and new Rós songs, forged in a heavier, fuller style than what audiences witnessed on the previous American tour.
All this isn't to say that Sigur Rós lack detractors. Another source relates an anecdote that occurred in a Cleveland-area record store. Upon hearing ( ), one nonbeliever declared that it sounded like "a wimpy guy singing into a huge cock." After hearing so many tough guys singing as if they have huge cocks, though, Sigur Rós sound positively refreshing.