September 29, 2005

Sigur Ros: Takk…

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Historically, cities like New York, Los Angeles and London have been considered havens for emerging artists. Yet today, one small, completely isolated nation has been gaining notoriety in the music world for its ability to breed some incredible artists: Iceland.

Most people would be hesitant to characterize a frigid island that happens to be populated by a plethora of gorgeous blonde women to be a musically vibrant city. Yet contrary to popular belief, the small nation of 290,000 has been churning out a number of emerging superstars in the last decade. Even in the darkest and iciest of winter evenings, Reykjavik’s thriving music scene bursts with the sounds of international superstar Bjork, upcoming rock band Mum and most recently, Iceland’s premier progressive-orchestral rock band, Sigur Ros.

Sigur Ros’s sound is a very difficult thing to define in words. Think of a stripped down, rawer version of Radiohead with a touch of Bjork’s ethereal, falsetto vocals set against a background of slow, drawn out guitar chords. Does this sound accessible to the Desperate Housewives-watching, Ashlee Simpson-loving American? I didn’t think so either. Yet surprisingly, the band has developed quite a loyal following in the past few years. In fact, their new album, Takk- managed to infiltrate the Billboard top 50 in its first week, beating out sugarcoated indie poster boys The Killers.

Whether you characterize Sigur Ros as slowcore, dream pop or space rock, the bottom line is that the band has mastered the uncanny ability to transport its listeners from a real, tangible place to somewhere mystical. Anyone who has seen them live can tell you that their performance is more like a religious experience than a concert. Take frontman Jonsi Birrigson, who eerily resembles a prophet onstage with his high-pitched, whimsical voice and his ability to soothe his audience by playing guitar with a violin bow. It’s no wonder some fans have claimed that the best sleep they have ever gotten has been at a Sigur Ros concert.

Takk…, which means “thank you,” is similar in composition to Sigur Ros’s 2002 breakthrough album, ( ). ( ), which, you guessed it, has no pronunciation and possesses nine tracks that are simply numbered one through nine. With slow, drawn out numbers that feature accompaniment by organ, chimes and guitars that sweep in and out, one cannot help but feel a sense of unrelenting calm on ( ) which, fortunately or unfortunately, also has the effect of lulling the listener to sleep. Forget about deciphering the lyrics, staying awake long enough to appreciate the glorious crescendos on tracks which take four to five minutes to build is difficult enough. Fortunately, on Takk- the sense of drowsiness and lethargy is stymied slightly in favor of a sound that is more grounded and accessible but that still maintains that same kind of abstract, dreamy seriousness.

Takk- begins with “Mea Bloanasir,” a track which builds quickly and features Birrigson humming the same melody over and over, accompanied by a strong back up piano and fast-paced drum beat. The song segues nicely into “Takk…” which isn’t really a song so much as a one minute and 57 second teaser for track three, “Glosoli,” the pinnacle of the album and probably the best produced, most developed song the band has come out with yet.

The most alluring aspect of “Glosoli” is the way in which the sound of the bells, strings and steady rhythmic tapping in the background interact to produce a sound completely novel and enriching. For me, the steady tapping in the background made me feel as if I were part of a battalion of soldiers, trudging through a remote, snowy path somewhere in Iceland only to have something profound and otherworldly happen as the guitars kick it hard and majestically toward the end. The music video for “Glosoli,” which is available on the band’s website, beautifully portrays the story behind the song, a boy’s journey to the sun.

“Hoppipolla” is another number in which Sigur Ros illustrate their incredible ability to combine string, brass and keyboard in an upbeat ballad that is warm and catchy. While critics might contend that the song is a disappointing deviation from the whimsical sound that has made Sigur Ross so unique, I felt that the keyboard hook and steady, clear-cut vocals made the track a fresh change of pace for a band that has sold many albums based on a lofty sound that distances itself from the mainstream.

Despite its uncanny similarities to anything off of Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” the song “Saeglopur,” is another awesome, multidimensional number that features the band opting for a harder, rawer sound over the more lethargic, funeralistic ( ). The song starts out with Birrigson’s high-pitched voice singing softly over a duet of keyboard and xylophone. The guitars and bass kick in strongly but without detracting from Birrigson’s voice, making the song the closest thing to an Icelandic arena rock ballad minus the cheesiness. The guitars fade out at the end only to be replaced by a string section that ends the number in a peaceful and soothing way.

Takk… is a huge step forward for a band who considers themselves inferior to other bands in terms of technique. Whether looking to brush up on your icelandic or that ultimate cure to insomnia, Takk… is a must own.

Archived article by Jonny Lieberman
Sun Contributor