Artist: Sigur Rós
In Brief: A long, drawn-out, sad disappointment of a record. This is NOT how a band should return from a four-year hiatus.
Some bands really know how to take a listener’s expectations and dash them on the rocks. Over the years, I’ve come to expect this from a lot of bands, actually – especially the artsy indie bands who are known for trying something radically different on every album. Sometimes that’s actually part of the fun – completely blowing the perception you thought you had of an artist out of the water, and replacing it with a new, intriguing persona that sinks in slowly as you struggle to figure out what the deal is with a strange new album of theirs. Sigur Rós has been doing this to me for pretty much their entire career, and the results have been mostly good. Like a lot of their fans did, I first got into them through the long, drawn-out, icy soundscapes of Ágætis Byrjun. Going into that one with no bearings whatsoever made it relatively easy to accept the Icelandic band’s refusal to name anything or sing anything intelligible in any language on the followup album, simply titled ( ). Strangely enough, it was the more wistful and slightly pop-friendly mood of Takk… that caused me to first criticize the band for seemingly resting on their laurels and not trying much of anything new. That was stupid of me, because that quickly became my favorite Sigur Rós record. Then came Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, with its shockingly upbeat front half and its almost complete avoidance of the reverb, bowed electric guitars, and hazy layering that had been then band’s go-to gimmicks in the past. That record never fully caught on with me, but it reminded me that the band would always be up for changing the game, for not conforming to a set of predefined boundaries. They took a break after that one, and I wasn’t sure at the time if we’d heard the last of them. But as lead singer Jónsi soldiered on with his solo album Go, which contained some of his most frantically up-tempo work yet, I became certain that the one thing I could always except from these guys was to not know what to expect. When the band reunited in 2012 to record Valtari, I was pretty sure I’d be surprised in some highly unorthodox ways.
Well, I’m surprised alright, but not in a good way. Valtari is one of those records that some critics might describe as a “return to form” for the band, but honestly, I’d consider it more of a return to formlessness. It’s a record that takes the most inert cliches that anyone might have ever associated with the band (long songs that go nowhere, agonizingly slow buildup to a lack of payoff, lots of repetitive gibberish, etc.) and turns it all up to eleven while toning down most of the variance and experimentation that helped all of their slow languidness in the past to make sense in context. Anything you might have heard about Valtari from the band before it actually dropped – it’s more electronic, it’s the record they’re proudest of, it contains all manner of evocative imagery, etc. – isn’t something you’d be likely to guess just from hearing it in a vacuum. Even the title – the Icelandic word for “Steamroller” – leads to expectations of big, weighty awesomeness. Turns out it’s only a fitting title due to how it gradually and uniformly crushes your hopes – as track after track drags on and on and on, all of it striving for vague beauty but only managing to beat a dead horse to the point of ridiculousness, one starts to wonder if pretty flowering valleys and tranquil fjords would mean anything at all without the imposing jagged mountains sticking up out of the Earth to give them their shape. Each and every one of these songs could work as a cool-down moment in between more striking highlights on any other Sigur Rós album. (Other than Von, I suppose. Their bizarre debut album infuriated the crap out of me, but shoot, at least it made me feel something other than detached apathy.)
I’m not gonna lie. Describing the sound of this album as it moves inexorably from one “song” to the next is gonna be a real challenge. Valtari isn’t one of those bad albums that’s actually fun to write about it. It doesn’t do anything bizarre or even noticeable enough to warrant being poked fun at. The truth it that it’s just a faceless, faded echo of several elements that the band once used to make really interesting music. I’ve done my darndest to re-evaluate it from every angle, listening with headphones at times of day when my mood is most mellow and I’m most likely to get fully absorbed in something slow and hookless that takes its time to reveal its true beauty… but that beauty never showed up. Little bits of it did, I guess – I could snip a minute or two out of most of these songs and envision it as a lovely way for a Sigur Rós track to start or end, or even as a little afterthought of an interlude between two more well-formed pieces of music. Just because you can come up with a short but lovely little piece of music doesn’t mean that repeating it over and over for eight minutes with vague haze and little else in the way of actual sonic development going on behind it constitutes an epic composition. Some of these problems were already present in the back half of Endalaust, but there was generally enough quietly grand instrumental skill on display, or an innovative string or choral arrangement, or something there to make it worth sitting through. Here, that oddly nostalgic, distorted piano melody or that looped ethereal choir that you initially like may be all that you get to hold on to for the entire track. They may as well have spent one day in the studio recording little snippets of music that they liked, and then left a laptop out in a snowdrift for several months, playing those snippets on an endless loop, to see what sounds it picked up from passing snowstorms, then returned a year later to see what was retrievable. Only once is there a moment where I feel like the band even kinda sorta wants to ask for my attention, and even then it feels like a faint echo of something they did far better in the past.
So yeah, this is gonna be a rough one to get through. Thankfully there are only eight tracks, totaling about 55 minutes of music. Which is actually mercifully short for a Sigur Rós album, though it sure doesn’t feel like it.
1. Ég Anda
The album opens with the sound of soft whispers and wintry, angelic choral vocals hovering slowly over the landscape. As a string section begins to bleed in slowly, sounding like they’re warming up for something big, it’s quite easy for the seasoned Sigur Rós fan’s appetite to be whetted. (Can I actually even consider myself a “seasoned fan”? No matter how many new albums these guys put out, for some strange reason I always feel like I’m a noob when I try to review anything they’ve done.) Gradually the song’s primnary melody begins to take shape, with distant, echoing keyboards, some clanging metallic sounds that remind me of the closing moments of “Avalon”, and after about three minutes of this, Jónsi’s high-pitched voice voice finally makes an appearance. It’s vintage Sigur Rós in some ways, and yet it all feels mushed together, the drums and bass barely rising up out of the sea of sounds, the whole thing prettily coasting by. “This is just the intro”, I figure. “It’ll lead to something epic once the next track kicks in”. Instead, the modest crescendo that we start to get at the end of this one suddenly cuts off, leaving only murky, low-pitched echoes and machine-like haze for the last minute or so of the track. It would not surprise me at all if, just like “Avalon”, this turned out to be some interesting snippet of sound played back at a much slower speed. But frankly, the song itself doesn’t engage me enough to make me care about the making-of process.
2. Ekki Múkk
Soft, low synthesized synth tones gradually lead into this one as the strings tremble with anticipation. The way Jónsi sings here sounds like he’s shivering out in the cold, breathing into his hands just to warm them up. It’s one of the few tracks on the album with actual Icelandic lyrics, though this makes little difference to me since I can’t tell them apart from the “Hopelandic” gibberish used in the other songs. The syllables sound repetitive enough to my ears that I would have assumed this one was in Hopelandic – my tendency to hear English where there isn’t any makes me think he’s singing “No, I can’t love you” over and over. As slow, tear-stained notes from a piano begin to trickle in, you can hear Jónsi’s voice splitting off into its own background accompaniment, sped up to varying high speeds just like he did on “Vaka”, the first track from ( ). As a matter of fact, the whole song really sounds like a faint copy of that track, which was a definite standout to me despite the insistent slowness. I’m not feeling it here when they repeat the same trick. Did I mention that this is the first “single” from the record? Obviously this band isn’t aiming for radio exposure, so I know it simply means the first track released for fans to preview and to get a video treatment. But still, this really isn’t the track I’d want to send out in advance as an ambassador for the album. It’s nearly 8 minutes of stuff the band has done better before.
This is the one track that, for me, manages to rise above the muck and actually make me feel something. Admitting this sort of makes me doubt myself a bit, since it’s the only track where the percussion hits with any force, and I don’t mean to imply that other songs on this album fail merely because they don’t have a strong beat. This one actually doesn’t at the beginning, either – it’s all solemn piano chords sounding like they’re being played back from an analog tape that’s been exposed to the elements, more of those trembling strings, and a somewhat more robust vocal from Jónsi. Am I crazy for thinking that, underneath all of the sonic warping, there’s actually a bit of a hymn-like sound to this one? Yeah, I’m probably crazy. But Jónsi’s melody shows a lot more variance, and when he hits the soaring chorus, it’s a think of grandeur despite consisting of only three made-up syllables. What kills me is when they throw in a boys’ choir midway through the song. Suddenly it’s like a non-denominational mass up in here… and that’s when Orri Páll Dýrason‘s drums finally kick in. They come stomping right in, too, completely unannounced, banging on every quarter note as if the boys’ lives all depended on it. The resulting crescendo is strongly reminiscent of “Popplagið”, the final track from ( ), even though I don’t think the build-up leading into it is quite as memorable. The heavenly explosion of sound as the song hits its climax and finally gets airborne is far and away the most exciting moment on Valtari. There’s still absolutely nothing here that the band hasn’t pulled off with more grace and intrigue in the past – I feel like the murky production (while I’m sure it was intentional) causes the whole thing to sag a bit. Still, I’m sure it would be a thrilling thing to experience live.
There’s more machine-like electronic humming as this one fades in. Really, is that all they meant when they indicated that this album was “electronic” – that you could hear the sound of a big server farm humming in the background here and there? Never mind. It turns to delicate snowy bliss soon enough as piano and chimes and fragments of vocals all hover about in the air, not quite daring to coalesce into a melody at first, but once again sounding like the band is building up to something pretty awesome. Once again, I’m not quite sure that they actually get there, but as the five-minute song (which is practically a compact pop song in this band’s world!) gradually takes shape midway through, backwards tape loops and crunching percussion come to the forefront, and I’m reminded of a few of the sparklier moments on Björk‘s Vespertine. The song finally hits its melodic refrain, but it doesn’t stay there quite long enough, and before you know it all of the melodic elements have faded away, leaving only that rhythm constructed of ticking clocks and footsteps and whatever found sounds they decided to stretch and warp in bizarre ways, and then it cuts out for yet another non-sequitur song segue on an album that seems to be full of ’em.
The title of this one means “Dead Calm”. So if you know your Icelandic, then I guess you know what to expect. (Though it’s a good descriptor for most of the album.) Once again I’m getting that cathedral-like quality from the vocals, fading in like a solemn choir at the beginning, with Jónsi’s lead vocal floating calmly over the backing vocals and the pure ambient tones that pretty much comprise the entire musical backdrop. I guess there are strings, too. It’s all so smeared – even to the point where the vocals seem to have this intentional blur at the beginning and end of certain lines – that I kind of figure the band was doing everything they could to avoid sharp edges on this one. Actually reading the English lyrics to this one, it’s one of the few Sigur Rós tracks that I actually think was worth looking up the translation for, since they show a sort of optimism that rises up out of the stillness. Björk’s arrangement of “Vökuró” is a good comparison here, though this one stretches out the slow grandeur a bit more than I’d like it to. Really, I think this would have made a good album closer. Quite strangely, despite the solemn stillness, the final wisps of strings that are heard at the end of this one carry on seamlessly into the next track.
The back half of this album in particular is where I find a whole lot of prettiness, but a frustrating lack of definition. The vague, bittersweet memories invoked by the repeating piano melody in this one are classic Sigur Rós, and there are even some interestingly used vocal sounds warbling about in the background, almost like the band was trying to record some sort of paranormal activity. And there’s a glockenspiel adding its own slow, tinkly melody midway through. But… that’s… pretty much… all there is… for six minutes. As smooth as the segue was from track five into this one, it almost becomes an albatross as the whole thing begins to feel like one twelve-minute song that drags on and on forever. This could have been a pretty interlude, and I suppose it’s quite a testament to the band’s ability to weave together disparate sounds in an emotionally compelling way. But after I’ve had my heartstrings tugged at for this long, I kind of want a little payoff at the end, a resolution to all of that lingering over some sad still photograph.
Well, after all of that noodling about, surely the title track should give us a central theme of some sort to rally around, a reminder of why we love this strangely introverted band with their many-splendored frosty sounds. Nope, this one just serves to push the ambient tone poetry to its limits and to thoroughly explore the whole idea of repeating a simple theme until it breaks down completely from overuse. Sadly, the snippet of sound that they chose to use and abuse in this fashion is actually one that I happen to like. You won’t hear it until about 2 minutes into this 8-minute track (the album’s longest), but there’s this softly descending melody being played by bells, the pitch of it ever so slightly warped, almost as if to make you think the entire musical landscape is melting before your very eyes. There’s something compelling and yet slightly, inexplicably disturbing about it. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It sort of makes me feel something. But then it just… drags… on. Six whole minutes of this is not what a visionary band really wants to name its album after… is it? I think of all of the creative directions they could have gone with this delightfully chilling sound palette as a start point, and I’m just hopelessly disappointed. At this point, there is no returning. The steamroller has crushed my hopes, and while I know there’s still one track to go, I know better than to hold out any hope for it.
8. Fjögur Píanó
The title of this one literally means “Four Pianos”. And that’s exactly what you hear (though with all of the looping and layering that this band likes to do, it could well have been one piano). The first such instrument starts out with a slow, ponderous melody, almost intentionally leaving you hanging on for the next note even though you know what the next note is gonna be, due to how it throws in all of these awkward pauses. A second piano begins to roughly sketch around this melody, and by the time there’s a third, there’s some rough semblance of rhythm to it. I would be completely unsurprised to discover that this was a fully improvised moment in the studio, with one guy going through that basic melody over and over again and seeing what everyone else comes up with on the fly. If that’s how they did it, then from a technical standpoint, it’s pretty amazing. Unfortunately it just isn’t that delightful to actually listen to. Once you’ve basically got the hang of it and you can glean some sort of structure from what sounds like it’s mostly random, There’s still a good four or five minutes of it left to endure. (Some strings sneak in and start to steal the show, but it doesn’t really change the basic structure of the song… plus it’s old hat since nearly every other track on the album has employed the same damn trick without getting those strings to play much of an actual melody.) I could see getting into this if you like the more avant-garde aspects of jazz or modern classical music… the really minimal kind. For me, it’s just a long, sustained sour note at the end of an album that seems to be all about avoiding definition. Which is nice on an intellectual level and all, but enough already.
I just don’t know what got into these guys. Subverting the familiar tropes than the fans assume you’ll always use is one thing – I’m generally a fan of musical restlessness when it leads to trying new and interesting things. But Valtari subverted all of the wrong ones while clinging so stubbornly to a much narrower set of them, that I’m not sure what to assume about the process behind it. You can’t escape boredom with your old sound by paring it down to a subset of what it once was. It takes them exactly in the opposite direction of what most fans or critics would have asked them to change if the band even cared about such a thing. Any attempt to make heads or tails of it just leads me back around to the big, frustrating question, “Why?” That’s a question that I used to enjoy asking as I absorbed the band’s past records. But no more. I can only take comfort in the fact that, when the band re-emerges three or four years from now with a new record, there’s really no way to subvert Valtari other than to bounce back and do something bigger, gutsier, edgier, or just completely different altogether. Odds of that being a better record are pretty high, don’t you think?
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ég Anda $.50
Ekki Múkk $0
Fjögur Píanó -$.25
Jón Þór (Jónsi) Birgisson: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, harmonica, banjo
Georg (Goggi) Hólm: Bass guitar, glockenspiel
Kjartan (Kjarri) Sveinsson: Keyboards, piano, organs, guitar, flute, tin whistle, oboe, banjo, backing vocals
Orri Páll Dýrason: Drums, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: