Sunday 25 February 2018

Understated work a powerful statement


John Meagher

John Meagher

It has been a dozen years since I first heard Sigur Ros's breakthrough album, Agaetis byrjun, and I still recall just how struck I was by its singular nature. From the evocative bowed guitar sounds to Jonsi Birgisson's haunting falsetto it ploughed its own furrow in quietly spectacular fashion.

The album's English translation -- An Alright Start -- could hardly have been less apt.

Sigur Ros have released albums sporadically since then -- the epic (Takk, 2005), the underrated (the curiously titled (), 2002) and the playful (Meo suo i eyrum vio spilum endalaust, 2008) -- but, despite the myriad merits of each release, the shock of the new was absent.

It's easy to become accustomed to the Icelandic quartet's meticulously crafted music that has begged comparisons with their native country for a multitude of critics. Birgisson would be a very wealthy man if he got a euro for every time someone described his songs as "glacial".

Valtari -- 'Steamroller' -- will also have the critics searching for words that evoke Iceland's strange landscape: it's a frequently beautiful, elegant and largely restrained collection that's at its best when listened to as one long suite of music.

Birgisson's distinct vocals are present on several of the songs, while others are left to nurture without his falsetto.

There's a greater use of electronic instrumentation than before, but this comparatively new departure is kept backgrounded, so the band's distinct "organic" sound remains to the fore.

Anyone hoping for a return to soaring epics like Glosoli or Hoppipolla (from the Takk album) will be disappointed.

Valtari is a much more subdued, ruminative and, occasionally, melancholic album that favours understatement to big statements.

Yet, it's no less powerful for it and on a track like the churchy Varuo, the band's ability to mine truly beautiful music remains as striking as ever. It's a secular, life-affirming hymn that's likely to be among the highlights of their set at Electric Picnic come the first weekend in September.

Elsewhere, Rembihnutur builds slowly, but assuredly, into an intoxicating sonic climax, while Varoeldur -- the first of three instrumental tracks at the end of the album -- is among the most delicate pieces of music of their career.

Key tracks Varuo; Rembihnutur

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