fter Sigur Ros’s first release, the dark, feral Von, the band’s follow-up, the widely hailed Ágætis Byrjun was quite a surprise. The album’s lush melodicism, driven (some might say over-driven) by saccharine string sections, earned the band quite a following, not to mention an opening slot for Radiohead (which often go hand in hand). Maybe the group resents the attention. Their newest album, with the forehead-slappingly pretentious title ( ), gives off distinct “fan kiss-off” vibes. The unpronounceable album title (along with untitled songs and blank liner notes) seem like a jab at Yorke-worshippers who couldn’t pronounce the Icelandic titles of Sigur Ros’s previous work anyway. Even more telling is the group’s almost complete abandonment of the gentle string melodies and structured songs that won them a following in the first place.
Sigur Ros never really tried to hide their affinities with post-rockers like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor. The epic-length songs, repeated themes, the builds and fades, the lack of context-creating lyrics (Jon Thor Birgisson resented attempts to translate his lyrics on Ágætis Byrjun, and was known to request fan sites to remove translations) – they were all there under layers of syrupy strings and piano. On ( ), these aspects are nakedly exposed. The strings are gone, save some reverbed atmospherics in a few tracks. The instrumentation has been drastically reduced to keyboards, drums, bass, and guitar. The guitar rarely comes to the front for epic sweeps as it did in Ágætis Byrjun’s most breathtaking tracks, instead noodling around in reverbed shimmers. The bass usually drives the songs, lurching through chord changes that are at once predictable and idiosyncratic. Sigur Ros have a distinct knack for melody, but once you have a handle on their style, the notes fall into place.
( ) focuses much more on atmosphere than actual songs. The structures of the songs are often simple, following the familiar post-rock trope of “build-climax-fade.” Instrumentation is looped, a la Mogwai – the first track’s repeated piano theme definitely recalls the Scots. But a sense of willful antagonism pervades. Track 5 forces the listener to wade through eight minutes of comatose drumming and slight atmospherics for 60 seconds of payoff that sound like interpolations of Dark Side of the Moon jams. Track 1 and Track 4 both feature pitchshifted vocals that push Birgisson’s beautiful falsetto (the band’s greatest asset) to illogical extremes. Whatever the band is going for, it’s definitely not looking to expand its audience.
However, ( ) is by no means a failure. Sigur Ros manage to milk plenty of majesty from looped instrumentation and well-worn structures. Track 2 is the best of the bunch, with narcotic drums pushing a heavy bassline through a disorienting field of haunting whistles (probably more pitchshifted vocals). Birgisson’s vocals have never sounded more exposed, giving them a strength that Ágætis Byrjun often obscured. The final track’s ultimate climax is nothing short of harrowing, as a crashing storm of frantic drum fills overwhelms Birgisson’s urgent guitar strumming and plaintive wail.
( ) lacks many of Ágætis Byrjun’s strengths, but draws upon the haunting desolation of Von to fill things in. More inventive song writing and a less antagonistic stance could have helped Sigur Ros create something as equally stirring as their previous album. The move into more alienating and dissonant territory is a welcome one, though. Fans who miss the sumptuous instrumentation and comforting melodies are advised to check out Mum’s Finally We Are No One instead.
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01