Sæglopur EP by Sigur Rós (Review)

Compared to previous EPs like Svefn-G-Englar and Ný Batterí, Sæglopur’s b-sides are of a much subtler, more delicate bent.

As fine and magnificent as their albums might be, Sigur Rós’ EPs and singles are definitely not to be overlooked; they often contain music that’s just as gorgeous as the album tracks. Of course, some might argue that’s a given, seeing as how this is Sigur Rós we’re talking about, a band that most fans would probably consider the closest we’ll get to hearing heavenly choirs this side of the Great Beyond. And as such, everything they create is transcendent, or so goes the logic.

Be that as it may, the b-sides on the Sæglopur EP are especially noteworthy. While the b-sides on previous EPs such as Svefn-G-Englar and Ný Batterí were still fairly in-line with the soaring, orchestral sturm and drang that the Icelandic group is celebrated for (and rightfully so), Sæglopurs b-sides are of a much subtler, more delicate bent. (Which is rather ironic since the EP’s title track was one of the loudest, most overwhelming tracks on Takk…, the band’s most recent full-length.)

If ​“Refur” had appeared on any of the band’s albums, it probably would have been lost amidst the swelling strings and soaring guitars, perhaps serving only as a segue from one climactic moment to the next. But here, on its own, the sparse piece reveals itself to be especially poignant and evocative, reminiscent of Harold Budd’s more contemplative moments.

There has always been a wide-eyed sense of nostalgia and longing at the core of Sigur Rós’ music. But it is too often overshadowed by the band’s bombastic tendencies. But with ​“Refur”, the band strips their music of any ostentation whatsoever, and that yearning becomes strikingly apparent and haunting throughout ​“Refur”.

That mood continues through ​“O Fridur”, with its disorienting swirls of strings, synths, and flutes. The swirls move to embrace the listener for just a fraction of a second before pulling back, creating a hypnotic flow. A piano tentatively forms a faint melody in the background, though it can only be heard initially in those brief gaps between each swirl of strings. As the song enters the second half, strands of Jonsi Birgisson’s voice begin drifting through.

Of course, we’re now half-expecting that bowed guitar and Orri Dýrason’s crushing drums to come tearing through, carrying Jonsi’s vocals to their climactic pitch. But the vocals remain fragile and simple, and the track simply fades out and ends, all the more evocative for having ended so gently.

If the previous two tracks were sparse, than ​“Kafari” is just downright skeletal. One of the most minimal songs in the band’s oeuvre, ​“Kafari” is all ephemeral drones and Múm-like crystalline music box chimes, with only the barest of violin melodies giving the song some measure of substance. Like the previous tracks, ​“Kafari” remains ephemeral and haunting, even when the flurries of chimes grow heavier and more insistent.

Suppose that some day, Sigur Rós decides to pull a Talk Talk, hole themselves up in their Álafoss studio for 17 months, and proceed to strip their music of all orchestral arrangements, walls of guitar, and pounding drums. The resulting music might bear more than a passing resemblance to the hushed, elegant music on Sæglopur.

Which might disappoint folks expecting yet another album of apocalyptic climaxes, overwrought vocals, and glacial walls of sound. But it is reassuring to know that the band can make such evocative, emotional music with nary a bowed guitar in sight.