( ) by Sigur Rós (Review)

Compared to the celestial heights that Ágætis Byrjun strove for, ( ) feels remarkably restrained. But in its own way, far more ambitious.
Untitled - Sigur Rós

I have to admit a fair amount of trepidation heading into this album. This is, after all, Sigur Rós we’re talking about, and their follow-up to Ágætis Byrjun, considered by many to be one of 2000’s landmark releases. Although they may not have been under Radiohead-sized levels of pressure surrounding their next release, it was probably pretty close. When it was announced the album was simply going by the title ( ), with no song titles, liner notes, or lyrics, I’m sure many saw it as the final straw, proof that Sigur Rós had crossed over into the land of pretense and conceptual mumbo-jumbo.

And that posed a problem. For all of their sonic glories, all of the experimentation that bubbled just below the surface of Ágætis Byrjun and (to a greater extent) Von, it was impossible to talk about their music without describing, sometimes quite colorfully, its emotional impact. Although Sigur Rós’ musical trademarks were nothing new — billowing layers of guitar, cresting string arrangements, psychedelic keyboards, and ethereal vocals — rarely has it been used to create such consuming experiences.

Compared to the celestial heights that Ágætis Byrjun strove for, ( ) feels remarkably restrained. But in its own way, far more ambitious. Rather than try to outdo themselves sonically, the quartet went the other way.

Ágætis Byrjun nearly exploded at the seams sometimes with the layers of strings, guitars, and choirs the band tried to pack into its 10 tracks. By comparison, ( ) feels incredibly meticulous. Gone is the grandiose flourish that marked Ágætis Byrjun. Much of that is due to ( )s songs being honed and crafted during the many shows Sigur Rós played in support of Ágætis Byrjun. ( ) has a rawer, more stripped sound, one much more inline with their live performances. Of course, this being Sigur Rós, their concept of “raw” and “stripped down” still outdoes all but the Spiritualized’s and Godspeed’s of the world.

( )s 8 tracks are divided into 2 halves, with the first being lighter and more “upbeat” and the second taking a darker, sparser feel. The first half contains minute echoes of Ágætis Byrjun’s fullness, but they still remain distant and on the outskirts. The piano and organ duet that opens the album finds itself slowly bolstered by creeping strings and ghostly snippets of Jónsi Birgisson’s wispy vocals. Meanwhile, “Track 2” begins with crackling static and various sonic swirlings before morphing into a drifting guitar that sways along with Birgisson’s sad laments.

I first heard “Track 3” when I saw Sigur Rós last year, and was immediately captivated. A slow burning track, it begins with a low and simple organ melody. The band carefully, cautiously layers on sparse piano melodies, e-bowed guitars, and small electronic gurgles reminiscent of fellow Icelanders Múm. But rather then explode in a crescendo à la “Starálfur” or “Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása,” the band backs off just before the climax. This sets the stage for what I’m guessing was ( )s most anticipated song, “Track 4” (a.k.a. “Njósnavélin,” a.k.a. “The Nothing Song,” a.k.a. “that song from Vanilla Sky”).

Birgisson’s vocals are in fine form, repeating a simple mantra in Hopelandic (the band’s imaginary singsong language, and the only language used on ( )). I have to confess, I’m hard-pressed to think of just why this track is so lovely. Is it the haunting church organ that plays throughout the song, Birgisson’s one-man angel choir, or the slow swell of the guitar? Like most things in Sigur Rós’ music, I’m guessing it’s all of the above, plus something deeper and more mysterious.

After a slight pause, it’s into darker, and frankly more challenging territory. Casual listeners might fight this section heavy-handed and will retreat to the album’s more comforting first half. However, this does contain some of ( )s most rewarding moments. “Track 5” and “Track 6” both make for tundra-sized eulogies, especially when Kjartan Sveinsson’s keys lead the procession in a manner reminiscent of “Ný Batterí“ s b-sides. Whereas Birgisson’s vocals are usually angelic, here they’re simply mournful, nothing but pure lament.

I think my most vivid memory of Sigur Rós comes from the May 2001 show, and the final moments of “Track 7” (previously titled, appropriately, “The Death Song”). The album’s longest track at nearly 13 minutes, it’s also the album’s darkest. Georg Hólm’s bassline practically crawls, like Low on quaaludes, barely bolstered by Orri Dýrason’s martial drumming. Birgisson’s vocals are stripped raw here, the song’s lone source of light. In the song’s final moments, Birgisson’s fragile voice reaches its apex, as if straining to hold back some indescribable despair while the drums come crashing down.

The opening moments of “Track 8” (a.k.a. “The Pop Song”) hearken back to the album’s brighter half, with a peaceful guitar melody surrounded by strings, a driving beat, and Birgisson’s bowed guitarwork. Birgisson’s vocals are stronger here, especially compared to the previous track. Overall, the mood seems more hopeful and reconciliatory, even peaceful. That is, until about 6 minutes in, when the mood suddenly turns south. Birgisson’s singing becomes more frantic and urgent, the guitars swarm like a cloud of locusts, and the drums take on an air of war.

One complaint leveled at the album is that it always seems to be building, but never leading anywhere. That is partially true with a few tracks. However, “Track 8”’s final minutes, with their searing guitars, downpour of percussion, and Birgisson’s flailing voice rallying the troops, contain enough power for a dozen albums. But more importantly, they (and the whole album, for that matter) contain enough emotional and spiritual impact to silence any complaints about pretense and other such nonsense.

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