Music: The elemental magic of Sigur Rós
Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30
In September 2014, I experienced one of the most unusual gigs of my life. It was a Damien Rice showcase to promote his then comeback album My Favourite Faded Fantasy and it was held in a former swimming pool that had been converted into a recording studio. Rice performed from what was once the floor of the pool while I was part of a small crowd that were standing and seated around the perimeter.
This place, Sundlaugin, is to be found deep in rural Iceland, a half-hour's drive from Reykjavik. Rice recorded much of that album there, but one of the reasons I was so taken with the studio is because it has been owned by Sigur Rós since 1999 and they have made some of their best, most enduring music in this isolated haven.
That September evening, there were several musicians in attendance who have worked on and off with the band, including Alex Somers who has made a number of compelling albums with his boyfriend, Sigur Rós's enigmatic frontman Jónsi Birgisson.
I quickly learned that in a country of just 330,000 people, everybody seems to know everybody else. And on the drive to the studio, where the wonders of the Icelandic landscape could be appreciated with every passing kilometre, I truly came to understand how this otherworldly place has shaped their extraordinary music.
And it has been extraordinary. For the decade and a half that they have been in the consciousness of those outside Iceland, the group, which formed in 1994, has delivered a remarkable body of work and a sound that's quite unlike anyone else.
Since they first emerged, critics have clutched at adjectives like glacial, ethereal, elemental, otherworldly - words that can just as easily be said of their homeland. And when you travel on the roads around that Sundlaugin studio, the comparisons don't feel lazy, but perfectly apt.
Like many, Sigur Rós came into my world in the summer of 1999 when they released their second album, Ágætis byrjun. The title was Icelandic for "an alright start" - about as inapt a title as you can get considering the majesty of the music. Listen to it today and be captivated by those soaring arrangements, partly comprising a guitar played with a violin bow (a Sigur Rós motif) and Jonsi's beguiling and arresting falsetto.
It would gain much wider recognition in 2001, when it won the Shortlist Prize, the US equivalent of the Mercury, pipping such luminaries as PJ Harvey and Gorillaz.
The album's centrepiece, 'Svefn-g-englar', unfolds over 10 marvellous minutes - a sublime marriage of post-rock orchestration and a singular vocal delivery that's underpinned by a recurring beat that could only be described as having the sound of a "depth charge". I've listened to it hundreds of times since then and it's impact hasn't faded one bit: it's a track that offers a reminder of the band's remarkable powers of seduction and it sounded especially brilliant when they played it live on the last time I saw them play, at Dublin's then O2 arena, three years ago.
Since the release of Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós have released a remarkably varied suite of albums, including the epic, thrilling Takk... ("Thanks") and the lushly arranged Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which translates as follows: "With a buzz in our ears, we play endlessly."
Takk... boasts two of their signature songs - 'Glósóli' and 'Hoppípolla' - and even if you think you've never heard a single Sigur Rós track before, you've almost certainly heard the latter thanks to its use in sports broadcasts and those moments where TV makers are seeking rousing music to stir the emotions. It's their highest charting single and was given the nickname "The Money Song" in studio as the band could sense its commercial appeal. Með suð... saw them working with the London Sinfonietta and London Oratory Boys' Choir and the result is a joyous wall of noise that includes a song, 'Festival', that features English for the first time in their career. Icelandic is just one of their languages of choice, however: several songs have boasted a made-up language they've dubbed "Hopelandish". One might have thought that failure to understand what they words are about would hamper the impact of the songs, but far from it: if anything, it accentuates the sense that Sigur Rós are different.
Tomorrow night, Jónsi and friends bring their show to the grand environs of the Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham. It's the sole Irish date on a world tour that kicked off with a rapturously received set at the Primavera festival, Spain, earlier this month.
In advance of the tour, the band - now a trio, after the amicable departure of two original members - issued a teaser on their website: "All we can say right now is it's going to be different, with new unreleased songs, a new show and maybe some other new things. Beyond that, we can only ask you to trust us on this one."
This week, they whetted our appetites further with the release of a marvellous new song, 'Óveður', which was debuted at Primavera, and is accompanied by a video shot by Jonas Akerlund, the Swedish director best known for his collaborations with the likes of Madonna and Beyoncé.
As with so much of their visual work, the film celebrates the majesty of the Icelandic countryside and when watching it, it struck me that few bands have quite as powerful a connection with their native land as Sigur Rós do. And that link is especially apparent on the feature-length documentary Heima, which captured the band playing a string of impromptu gigs throughout the country in 2006 following the success of their world tour in support of Takk... It's an exquisite little movie capturing an intriguing group at their apex.
Sigur Rós play the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, tomorrow night. James Vincent McMorrow supports