Thursday, January 14, 2016

Sigur Rós - down the rabbit hole with a classical, minimalist "post-rock" band from Iceland

Isn't life grand? Sometimes you go down the rabbit hole looking for one thing, and you come back up with something entirely different.

And that's pretty much what happened when I was looking for tablature for old Lutheran chorales in Iceland and found instead a "classical[,] ... minimalist ... post-rock" band from Reykjavik called Sigur Rós (more at I haven't been this blown away by a new band (showing my age here) since I discovered Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jefferson Airplane, Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull and progressive rock 45 years ago in a kinder, gentler and perhaps more musically sophisticated era.

Well, Sigur Rós aren't really a new band (showing my age here, too, I guess). They've been around since 1994.

And they don't sound very much like Thick as a Brick, either, but I haven't heard very many bands as interesting musically since punk, metal and other genres took over the airwaves in the 1970s and 80s.

Here they are on a tune called "Hoppípolla" (which apparently is an Icelandic word for hopping around in puddles). It was shot live on location in Iceland, and the production values on the video also blow me away.

Sigur Rós - "Hoppípolla" - live from Heima DVD

Sigur Rós would mean "victory rose" in English, and it is the name of frontman Jón Þór Birgisson's sister. The clip of "Hoppípolla" shown here is from Heima, which means "at home," or homeland. It is a two-disc documentary and music video set from a home-country tour in 2006. Here's a trailer:

Personnel on the DVD : Directed by Dean DeBlois, with Jón Þór Birgisson / Georg Hólm / Kjartan Sveinsson / Orri Páll Dýrason / Hildur Ársælsdóttir / María Huld Markan / Sigfúsdóttir / Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir / Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir. Venues and track list at (Those odd extra letters -- Þ and ð -- have a "th-" sound in English. I try not to worry about them too much.)

One of my favorites so far is "Olsen Olsen." At first I thought it's a name, but it isn't -- it's in a made-up language called "Volenska" (a nonce word made up of the Icelandic word roots for hope + land + the suffix -ic) or "Hopelandic" in English, and it carries no meaning beyond the sounds of the words. Birgisson, who more commonly goes by Jónsi, sings it in a haunting falsetto:

"Olsen Olsen" - live from Heima DVD

But those gorgeous vocals on the video clip don't mean anything -- other than the playful, lilting, ethereal meanings suggested by timbre and melody, and there's plenty of that.

Says Eren Livingstone in a track review on a blog called al niente dal niente, "An interesting note about this invented language is that it doesn't have words, meaning or any context, but instead a focus on sound, syllables and melody. This really brings to light one of the best things about this band: how Jónsi Birgisson's vocals are really more like an instrument itself than a method to portray a message ..." I'm not sure I even want to mention this, but an internet troll on the Mudcat Cafe discussion board apparently took advantage of that ambiguity to claim the lyrics were satanic. They are not.

Chris Foster, an Englishman who has moved to Rekyjavik and sings Icelandic folk music with his wife Bára Grímsdóttir, dispatched the troll on the same thread ("Sigur Ros - meaning?" "The B.S. above about the band´s religious inclinations is exactly that, B.S." He also noted, "you'll catch a glimpse of some genuine Icelandic kvæðalög (that´s traditional singing to you and me)" on the Heima videos. I wish I knew enough about Icelandic music to recognize that, let alone catch it, but it's more testimony to the complexity of Sigur Rós's music.

"Oh and by the way," Foster added, "they are 4 very nice, ordinary blokes (I´ve met them and drummers Dad is good friend of mine) their down to earthness also comes across in the film."

Not much written about them in the commercial media, but a Google search will turn up some decent advance stories on their tours in Europe and the United States.

Good article -- in French, though but with links to lots of videos: "Quand Sigur Ros joue, les volcans islandais font silence". Agora Vox Nov. 20, 2010. I'll quote and translate (with help from Monsieur Google):

Le plus souvent, la furie semble contenue et l’eau s’écoule en formant de jolis ruisseaux qui serpentent au coeur des vertes pâtures islandaises. On est alors saisi par des ambiances musicales subtiles, éthérées, et par la voix magique de Jonsi (Jon Thor Birgisson). Parfois le feu jaillit et la glace se métamorphose, en forçant les ruisseaux à devenir des fleuves impétueux que rien ne peut arrêter ... / Most often, the fury seems contained and the water flows forming beautiful creeks that meander in the green pasture Icelandic . It is then seized by subtle musical atmospheres , ethereal and magical voice of Jonsi ( Jon Thor Birgisson ) . Sometimes the fire springs and ice metamorphosis , forcing the streams become raging rivers that nothing can stop ...

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