Release Date: May 29, 2012
Record label: XL Recordings
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Post-Rock, Experimental Rock
Nothing much happens on the instrumental title track of Sigur Rós’ latest LP, but it’s a layered, gorgeous nothing, lush with nuanced drift and harmonic sweetness. It’s the set piece of the group’s mellowest LP. Jonsi’s exquisite vocals evoke prayers or lullabies, while pecked-out piano melodies play amid dulcimer tones, sonar burps, elf choirs.
It’s 23 degrees but feels four times that, this train a kiln of barely-held tempers and liquid skin, mewling infants and stillborn productivity. Businessmen dab their foreheads and click shut their laptops, defeated and slightly panting. This is not a time for thinking. It’s much less a time for writing, the words melting before they even form into a treacle of babbled syllables and stuttered pause.
Ever since Sigur Rós extended their invitation to come into their cosmic, frosty universe a little over a decade ago with Agaetis Byrjun, there’s been a significant development in the way their audience has been warmly receptive to their craft. After providing what was essentially a breakthrough in shaping ambient soundscapes into something thrilling, there’s been a profusion of producers and musicians simulating and deconstructing its componing parts into larger, more complex configurations. Yet through the years, the Icelandic foursome has gradually devolved, seemingly lessening their progressive output after stretching it as far as it could go.
Icelandic experimentalists Sigur Rós have retreated back into the deep, icy waters of post-rock ambience on their difficult, insular, but highly rewarding sixth studio album, Valtari. The songs were a bitch to assemble, and I use that term literally: After botched sessions for both an intended choral album and a more pop-based collection (following further down the path they took on 2008’s giddy Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust), the dejected quartet enlisted producer-instrumentalist (and frontman Jonsi Birgisson’s longtime partner) Alex Somers to help piece together all their aimless doodling and fragmented soundscapes into something resembling cohesion. Valtari is the band’s headiest and spaciest album since 2002’s divisive (and unpronounceable) ( ), filled with twinkling pianos, cooing 8-bit baby voices, simmering strings, deep sighs of pixie-dust bowed electric guitar, and the speaker-rattling hum of Georg Hólm’s e-bowed bass—stripped back from the layered horns and glockenspiels and harmonies that peppered Með suð (and their 2005 commercial breakthrough, Takk…).
After taking a long break from recording new material, Sigur Rós' sixth album, Valtari, is a welcome return for the Icelandic soundscape pioneers. Their previous album Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust had been their most intimate and cheerful record to date with songs that could actually be called "songs" and the band stripping their sound down to the point where you could almost pick out individual instruments in the mix. It appears that singer Jonsi took all the sunshine and most of the pop song structure away for use in his solo career, because Valtari is a return to the epically somber and sonically all-encompassing approach the band perfected on their first few albums.
Earlier this year, the pretty but middling Inni slinked by as a reminder that, as beautiful as Sigur Rós can sound live, a concert recording isn’t equipped to deliver the emotional resonance inherent to the Icelandic quartet’s chilly, symphonic post-rock. Sigur Rós is essentially a group of studio musicians, after all—masters of sound and atmosphere confined within the insular spaces of headphones. And so it comes as no surprise that the band has re-embraced that strength with their sixth studio album, Valtari.
Sigur RosValtari[Parlophone; 2012]By Chris Bosman; July 10, 2012Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOGTweetA few years ago, Sigur Rós started making pop songs. The shift was, like everything the band has done, patient and considered. Consider: it took the band almost ten years to transition slowly away from Ágætis byrjun's grandiosity and the goodwill it engendered to the English-singing, traditionally structured, and easily consumable joy of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.
“Valtari” is the Icelandic word for “steamroller”. That’s an apt description for much of the music from Sigur Rós, exemplified by the epic “Untitled 8” (aka “PopplagiÃ°”) from 2001’s ( ). It’s a steamroller of sound, bowling you over with its emphatic build towards oblivion, exploding in a minor key catharsis. But Valtari, Sigur Rós’ seventh studio album, is not that kind of steamroller.
If you were to look through the majority of reviews written about Sigur Rós, a noticeable pattern of adjectives begins to emerge. As my PopMatters colleague humorously pointed out earlier this year, “glacial” is one word you’re likely to find in every other review, if not every one. Some others might be “cinematic”, “expansive”, “lush”, or any like synonym.
In which the Icelandic troupe return from their hiatus with a startling new brostep direction. Not really, just joking. Longtime fans will be delighted to hear that ‘Valtari’ eschews the Coldplay-isms of 2008’s ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’ to retread the sweeping soundscape territory of 2002’s ‘( )’. If you’re not a convert to Sigur Rós’ ethereal, wide-eyed majesty, then this probably won’t do anything to change your mind.
In the grand scheme of things, Sigur Rós hasn't been gone that long, but with the solo and soundtrack work of frontman Jónsi, and the speed of the internet age, the group's return, aside from being more than welcome, does also feel somehow long overdue. Following the live document Inni, the band has now made its official return with a new studio album, Valtari. And what a curious return it is.
Let's start with an understatement: things tend to move quite slowly in the world of Sigur Rós. This is true whether we're talking about the glacial pace of their songs, the glacial pace at which they release them, or their artistic progression. In the 13 years since Ágætis Byrjun became the first and possibly only post-rock crossover record, Sigur Rós have edged closer to actual pop while still maintaining their singular place amongst many consumers' record collections: The band's stamp of approval is pretty much the only way a lot of people are dealing with 10-minute songs or an invented language.
SIGUR RÓS play Echo Beach at the Molson Amphitheatre August 1. See listing. Rating: NNN After a foray into frisky pop on 2008's Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, on their sixth album Icelandic quartet Sigur Rós return to the less easily defined cinematic atmospherics for which they are best known. At first, Valtari's blissful opening sounds like a retreat to the familiar, but gradually it morphs into an exercise in extreme minimalism that emphasizes mood over melody, subtle textures, creeping vocals, delicately meandering piano and a general resistance to the big, emotional moments that have become the band's trademark.
Review Summary: Twinkle, twinkle... blah blah blah.For the longest time, I didn't know how to write about Valtari; I would hazard a guess that I'm still going to struggle. At this point in Sigur Rós' career, we know a lot before we even listen. We know that, at some juncture, we will wake (either literally or figuratively) to find ourselves surrounded by a wall of strings and pianos, with Jónsi Birgisson's angelic falsetto stirring somewhere above or below.
The danger with having created a sound as exquisitely distinctive and TV-ubiquitous as Sigur Rós's is that it starts to sound like its own parody. Their expansive soundscapes and Jónsi Birgisson's cooed and chirruped "Hopelandic" (his phonetically-Icelandic if nonsensical vocals) have become a sonic shorthand for "atmosphere", which is perhaps why Sigur Rós chose such an un-Sigur Rós name for their sixth studio album. "Valtari" means "steamroller", but no one's in danger of getting flattened by anything approaching Wagnerian blasts.
The good news is, with a Sigur Rós album, you know what you're getting into. The bad news is...oh, come on, you thought there was truly any bad news associated with a new Sigur Rós album? The blessing and the curse of Valtari is that the band neither runs their ethereal formula off the rails nor aspires to be anything greater than the sum of their previous albums. As a result, the band's first studio release in four years glides along with the grace we've come to associate from the Scandinavian quartet—without ever plunging to new and exciting depths.
Anyone who thinks the music of Sigur Rós is indistinguishable from the relaxation Muzak sold in new-age, tie-dye shops will find much to support their argument in the Icelandic quartet's sixth album. It has none of the upbeat pop-guitar irreverence that erupted from its predecessor, 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, while its tendency to restraint limits those overpowering crescendos that, on earlier albums, jolted the listener from their flotation-tank reverie. Varuð has some of the scratchy elegance of Dirty Three, but drifts into portentousness, as does the shape-shifting Rembihnútur.
It’s become a running joke of sorts, that with every touching shot of a polar bear raising her infants, trudging across miles of newly-landed snow, or for every dramatic visual landscape that graces our HD television sets, there’s room for a Sigur Rós song. Nature programmes and their kinship with ‘Hoppípolla’; it’s a norm of wildlife footage and heart-stopping montage; a standardised accompaniment for all things beautiful. In a way, it’s also sapped away at the appeal of Sigur Rós - we’ve almost forgotten just how capable these Icelandic giants are of creating great works of art in the shape of their albums.
Icelandic stars pursue a more peaceful path on their sixth studio LP. Wyndham Wallace 2012 If the release of Sigur Rós’ last studio album, Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, led people to fear that the band’s days crafting sky-scraping epics might be coming to an end, Valtari is going to worry them even more. While that 2008 album led off with the prancing Gobbledigook and seemed to edge towards a more open, commercial sound, Valtari heads off in the opposite direction, into a world of often percussion-free ambience.
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Valtari is the Icelandic post-rockers' first album in four years and their sixth full studio album to date. It is also one their most ethereal and subdued releases, eschewing both the quiet-loud-quiet template of their earlier work and the folky catchiness of 2008's Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust in favour of more ambient, dreamlike soundscapes. Dominated by layered choral singing and sparse piano, lead vocalist Jónsi takes centre stage.
As if symbolic of their space-filled music, Iceland’s Sigur Rós took a four-year break between their last studio album and the new Valtari. During that time, frontman Jónsi made a solo disc, The band released a couple stopgaps and a volcano near Eyjafjallajökull erupted numerous times, unleashing a massive cloud of ash that blanketed Iceland throughout the autumn of 2010. If Valtari is any indication, that cloud still lingers—at least in the headspace of Jónsi and crew.
Taking into account the bout of ill-health that post-rock appears to have been timidly battling for the past few years, Sigur Rós' body of work is a genuine joy to revisit in such trying times. Their striking, emotionally frostbitten take on rock music provides the perfect antidote to the bloated mess of cynical imitators and tiresome clichés that the genre has become inundated with. Upon listening to their work, for one brief moment, you may even be able to forgive their faceless clones of their crass banality; the phrase 'if you can't beat them, join them' springs to mind, and if the past eighteen years have proven anything, it's that Sigur Rós most certainly cannot be beaten.
At the risk of making a blatant generalization about one of this generation’s greatest bands, the main draw of a new Sigur Rós record was and still is the music’s uncanny ability to simultaneously put on a show of conspicuous beauty and flummoxing eccentricity. Yes – “Hoppípolla” may have achieved ubiquity thanks to spots in nature documentaries and Academy-nominated film trailers, but there’s still something unorthodox about a song sung in two Scandinavian languages – the band’s native Icelandic, as well as the largely nonsensical Vonlenska – that sneaks its way into the American subconscious. Play this group’s music for a group of middle schoolers in a classroom setting (which I’ve done on numerous occasions), and it’s usually responded to with alternating fits of uncomfortable giggling and unmitigated repulsion.