Sigur Rós have inspired more terrible music writing than any other band in the past decade; to get the ball rolling, I’ll submit some of my own. Faced with the prospect of reviewing the Icelandic art-rock quartet’s 2002 album, with an unpronounceable title—officially, it’s ( ), but go ahead and call it Parentheses next time you bring it up down at the bar—and eight unnamed prog-dirge tracks to contend with, I took the liberty of assigning song titles myself: “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” “Big Bottom,” “Stinkin’ Up the Great Outdoors,” etc. Hilarious. When a dude resorts to Spinal Tap jokes, you know he’s sunk.
Of course, their gleefully pretentious eccentricity is only half the problem. (Though it’s a pretty big half: The lyrics to ( ) are all sung in the made-up language Hopelandic, which seems to allow for half a dozen syllables at most, revolving around the phrase “You sigh” or, if you prefer, “You’s high” repeated ad infinitum.) Sigur Rós songs are brutally delicate works of otherworldly beauty and pulverizing volume, towering monoliths of reverb, viciously bowed guitars, volcanic bass, glistening strings, braying horns, and the yearning castrato wails of frontman Jón Thor Birgisson, who sings like Vaseline feels. Such theatrics can turn even our brightest critical minds into bewildered travel writers, summoning up glaciers, oceans, caverns, cathedrals, lunar landscapes, endless summers, nuclear winters. As interview subjects, the boys are shy to the point of implosion; look up video of their chat on NPR’s “Bryant Park Project” sometime for a near-silent, cringe-worthy train wreck worthy of the U.K. version of The Office. Their music is an enormous, engulfing vacuum—any meaning you want it to have, you have to project on it yourself. Many a Hollywood director (Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, Gregg Araki) has tried. But that’s a mug’s game, whether you’re a professional or an amateur; better you take a seat, assume a slack-jawed expression, and just let the jams overwhelm you.
Which is what we’re all doing, last Tuesday night at the Grand Ballroom, lured into a state of joyful paralysis five minutes into their first tune: “Svefn-G-Englar,” the band’s biggest hit, a slow, booming, organ-heavy crawl wherein Birgisson mewls what for all intents and purposes is “It’s youuuooouuuu” over and over and over, standing bolt-upright and mechanically sawing a violin bow over his guitar strings, an oft-repeated nervous tic that assists mightily in making us all deaf as well as mute. The cumulative effect leaves us rapt, motionless, awestruck, as though we’re either 10 miles underwater or orbiting Jupiter. Dismiss these guys as deeply, irretrievably corny if you must, but I’m up for anything or anyone who can break your typical indie crowd’s nonchalant lethargy, that passionless throng of digital-camera-brandishing automatons, filling up their Flickr pages without a flicker of real-life enthusiasm. Plenty of flashing lights here, too, but the bulk of the audience is too reverent to move.
Next comes “Glosoli,” off ( )‘s far less knuckleheaded 2005 follow-up, Takk, a massive and hypnotic bassline slithering over a steadily clomping kick-drum rhythm like mastodons on the march. (Shit, I’m doing it again.) Then “Se Lest,” which begins as a toy-factory lullaby, buttressed by a plinking vibraphone and Sigur Rós’ in-house all-female string quartet, Amiina; mid-song, just to keep everyone company, out trots a five-man horn section (complete with tuba), seemingly dressed as Clockwork Orange droogs, emerging from the wings and traipsing past the front row and onstage, slowly transforming the tune into a jaunty oompah waltz. Such theater, along with a few confetti cannons near show’s end, is all we’ll get in terms of showbiz; no effusive stage banter, thanks. The band’s strongest statement, in fact, is to perforate one tune with 30 to 45 seconds of dead, motionless silence, daring someone to break the spell. No one does. The song kicks back in, and is soon once again incredibly, incapacitatingly loud.
Whether this stuff works on record is debatable—the isolated moments of bombastic triumph mostly justify the long, languid, syrupy lulls—but in concert, Sigur Rós are damn near a religious experience, with all the rapture and righteous bloodshed that implies. (The following night, the band played a special small-scale gig at MOMA, the tickets for which were sold out literally before they went on sale, whereupon Brooklyn Vegan commenters started murdering each other in the streets.) So consider the band’s new record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, a splendid excuse to tour. It starts promisingly: “Gobbledigook” (haw, haw) is much shorter (three minutes!) and more organic than usual, a bouncy acoustic-guitar tumble, like someone fast-forwarding through “Solsbury Hill” or Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” and lalala‘ing merrily over top. Not every song crams 10 pounds of space-age studio artillery into a five-pound bag, which is nice. But the second half descends into a nigh-indistinguishable string of piano ballads, Birgisson in fine, angelic voice as always, but still cooing delicate gibberish whether his medium is Hopelandic or Icelandic. The quieter and more naked the songs get, the less power they have—Sigur Rós depend on excess, sonic and visual and emotional.
In that more desirable vein, as a Grand Ballroom capper, we are beaten over the head with “Popplagið,” the unofficial title of ( )‘s closing number, featuring the mother of all apocalyptic crescendos, the last three minutes or so conjuring up more sound and fury than Radiohead and Metallica combined. Right before the wave crashes, a wayward young lass leaps onstage and makes as if to hug Birgisson; a security guard materializes and very, very politely shoos her away before the messianic singer, hypnotized by his band’s own bombast, can even open his eyes to notice. It is the majesty of rock.