Sigur Ros being attacked by plants
Theatre at Madison Square Garden
February 9, 2005
So apparently Sigur Ros fucked around and got really popular when no one was looking. I haven’t conducted an official census or anything, but I’d guess that most bands that deal in long-ass impressionistic soundscapes with whale-noise vocals and extremely slow builds and virtually no hooks are lucky to get an opening spot at Galapagos, especially when their frontman plays guitar with a bow and most of their lyrics are in some made-up language. But there they were, playing the same venue that Kanye West headlined a few months ago, in front of 5600 kids and David Fricke. My cousin Janie, whose musical tastes generally stay along the Goo Goo Dolls/Counting Crows axis, bumps Takk on headphones when she’s catching up on paperwork, and she doesn’t even like Radiohead. So how did Sigur Ros reach that tipping point and become the go-to providers of post-rock majestic swoons for thousands upon thousands of kids?
A few ideas: Sigur Ros does the nonrepresentational orchestral-sigh thing with no hint of squalor or grit, nothing to harsh the immaculate headphone-buzz. Most of their erstwhile peers (Radiohead, Low, Bjork, guys like that) have at least one foot in some sort of subculture like punk or dance or indie-rock or britpop, some discernible point of origin. Beyond the Iceland thing, Sigur Ros doesn’t come with that kind of contextual baggage, so there’s a mysterious sui generis thing going on. The main difference between Sigur Ros and someone like Godspeed You! Black Emperor is that it’s virtually impossible to imagine Sigur Ros playing in a warehouse or holding down bike-messenger day jobs. The band plays up that whole mystery angle, of course, naming an album () and appearing onstage mostly in shadows with crazy lights going off around them. And so without all that messy background stuff, the band doesn’t have to mean anything; it can be pure sound for its own sake; there’s no messy persona noise jamming the frequency. Also, there was a huge weed smell in the venue, so that probably has something to do with it.
But all that enigma stuff wouldn’t have taken them this far if they weren’t really good at the swooning-majesty thing. Parts of last night’s show were deathly boring, endless stretches of piano plunks and screechy castrato wails and waves of almost-feedback from that fucking guitar-bow, no lift or resonance. On one song, the band used an eight-piece horn section to provide the kind of background ambient hum they could’ve gotten from one guy holding down three synthesizer keys. On another, one guy tooted the same five notes on a recorder over and over, even after the damn song was finished. This stuff would’ve been fine if I’d been trying to fall asleep, but in a dark-ass arena with nothing to look at except the band’s rear-screen projections of falling specks of light or busted-up doll-heads, I couldn’t wait for them to end. These aren’t the parts that stick with me, though. The moments I’ll remember are the rare moments of sudden, dazzling beauty: horns roaring in at the end of a song and turning a little piano half-riff into a huge, soaring melody, drums welling up out of nowhere, the bass player making some weird alien Joy Division space-noise by dragging a drumstick across his instrument. During moments like these, when the guy sitting next to me would start air-drumming and headbanging, Sigur Ros started to seem almost maybe transcendent. And so at their best, when the band finally lets the songs surge upwards and become epic, they’re kind of amazing. At their worst, when they’re just lightly pretentious and pretty planetarium music with high-pitched yelping, they’re still OK. So it turns out they’re a good band, and maybe that’s the appeal.