November 8, 2007

Record Review: Sigur Ros

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Sigur Rós are true Icelanders. Like their Viking forebears, they are journeymen, exploring the far ends of sonic constellations with their spaced-out and exultant blend of classical music, rock and atmospheric hummings. In place of raiding ships, they employ lead singer Jón Birgisson’s stirring falsetto as their guide through dense harmonies of strings, guitars and keyboards. What they find there is magic.
The double EP Hvarf/Heim, marketed as a companion piece to the new concert DVD, is divided into two parts: Hvarf, featuring songs from the group’s back catalogue, and Heim, a set of acoustic renditions of old works.
The electric stuff, while pulled together from disparate points in the past, is all “wall-to-wall reworkings” according to the band’s website, and hangs together remarkably well. Compared to Takk, there is a lot more ambiguity and a lot less cuteness. The definite high point is the second track, “Hljómalind.” Rather bare by Sigur Rós standards, the song alternately consoles and unsettles the listener as Jón’s confident vocals compete with undercurrents of melancholy and gravity. Next is “Í Gaer,” an uncharacteristically hard song that frightens with eerie, reverb-soaked singing and with guitar parts straight out of The Wall. But perhaps the most interesting track is the concluding “Hafsól,” which opens with bassist Georg Holm striking his strings with a drum stick. The song slowly builds from a soothing trance into an energetic cry with the addition of pizzicato strings, haunting guitars, and blaring horns. By the end, the music has spiraled into near-chaos, reaching a resolution through a trippy recession into Boards of Canada-like electronica.
Heim takes a different approach. While not every new arrangement on the album is an improvement on the original, the group’s ability to strip songs of their defining electronic effects — while still preserving a certain echoing beauty — is a sure sign of musical alacrity and confidence. For the most part, string and guitar arrangements take the place of the former electronic white noise. On songs like “Von” and “Ágætis Byrjun,” this results in a more immediate and improved sound. “Starálfur,” originally a charming pop tune, is transformed here into a masterpiece with stunning strings. However, the changes are not always so successful; on “Samskeyti,” for example, the music simply grows monotonous without the original ethereal atmospherics.
If Hvarf/Heim says anything as a unified work, it is that Sigur Rós has once again pushed their unique sound into new and fertile ground. The band here demonstrates a profound musical consciousness that combines and transcends these genres. Hvarf shows that Sigur Rós can take old songs and add a bit more emotional depth to them; Heim suggests that they can take those songs and rework them into entirely new and entirely beautiful works of art.