Over the past decade, Icelandic musicians have proven they’re amazing at doing essentially the same two things early bluesmen mastered: religiously honing their idiosyncratic voices, and playing up our relative lack of knowledge about place and identity to conflate their music into something more mythical than it actually is. By all sonic appearances (Björk, Múm, etc.) and critical vernacular, Iceland is a mystical winter palace where pixies and golems sing snow hymns through the night while people commune with aliens. But the band’s self-fabricated nonsense-language aside, the idea that Sigur Rós’s music is a product of “otherness” is a total farce. In reality, this band is a completely formulaic creature, and the pure rock ‘n’ roll idea it evolved from is the same strain that genetically binds 12-bar blues to Frippertronics: insistently cycling one thematic fragment of music (usually a melodic phrase) while carefully swelling and embroidering until it burgeons into a release, into something more. As the players meditate subtly on those ideas (glassy piano arpeggios, driving power chords, surging strings), frontman Jon Thor Birgisson’s singing unearths and exaggerates their embedded melodies, pulling the songs forward through gorgeous, octave-leaping swells until the intensity wanes and he drops abruptly back to earth, leaving those instruments hanging as the vapor trail of the descent. It’s effective.
Hvarf/Heim (“Disappeared”/”Home”)—a collection of unreleased material, reimagined songs, and live cuts from various stages in the band’s career—is basically a self-reflective character study, at turns both thrilling and self-indulgent. While “Hijomalind” eschews a glacial build for a parabolic series of lovely, guitar-driven peaks, “I Gaer” contrasts two different kinds of melodrama (rock-opera bombast and lullaby quietude) so starkly that it comes off as satirical. In the context of Sigur’s career, this is pretty benign stuff—the type of record that will excite those already held in thrall, but isn’t designed to indoctrinate nonbelievers. What it does consistently prove, though, is how much meaning and feeling this band can mine out of simplicity.