Sigur Rós and Its Discontents: (A Play in Parentheses)
(Stage set. A languid tiger lounges, camouflaged against the deep shag carpeting, flexing its claws. Eyes shut tight, ears vigilant, the smell of stale dust and loose fur dissolving into the air.)
Narrator: The record is now playing. May Alexius please come to the stage immediately. That would be Mr. Alexius.
Alexius: (Thinking to himself of his old heaven. It had its problems, its decaying infrastructure and so on. But not this hell.) I’m getting out of here soon. There’s no question of that, ladies and gentlemen. Please hand me the microphone. (Takes it from the narrator, whom he pats on the back.) I’ve been in heaven. For a long time, I’ve been in hell. But that’s no reason not to smile. We still have music, am I right? Most of the time, I’ve used this blog to share happiness. Art I love. Music that I appreciate.
There is a place for negativity. For me, it marches closer to the chest. Read the world with suspicion and it empties into a desert. Meanings and virtues are suspect, and vigilance is of the utmost importance. (The microphone bursts open with feedback. A shower of sparks glitters on the stage. Dark. The lights have failed? It’s difficult to see.) My editor informed me that this might happen. It’s all the static from this longhaired carpeting. Long. Hair. Hell and heaven. Even though you can’t see me, and this writing carries but a trace of my former presence, I would invite you to join hand in paw as we venture into more deserted spaces. We’ll forsake the oases we bathe in around here and eat the dust.
A Review of Sigur Rós’ fourth full-length album known as ( ). Written and performed by Alexius, sole character and personality. This is an experiment. Readers are advised to wear safety goggles at all times and keep a dictionary over their chests in case of metal launched at high velocities.
Let’s let all this play out in real time. Watch the video below:
This song and video are indicative of one strain in Sigur Rós, a wildness that runs through much of the more distinctive musical output from Scandinavia and elsewhere. I jest slightly. There is no wildness, though “Brennenstein” is far more abrasive than anything you would find on ( ). Sigur Rós is the apotheosis of the well-mannered rock band-as-quasi-string-ensemble. Composing pieces of vast dynamic range and what I hesitantly call Antarctic scope, the band’s group playing is at all times dutiful and ordered.
(Hell is quiet. All the amplifiers were shorted. What is this? A rainstorm coming down on the land. A car driving by. Aspects of this performance start to feel like a dream. The tiger is standing before the gathered, chill in the clammy air. Clammy in the chill. Alexius leans over the edge of the stage and speaks. No rain had come for as long as any of these Hungry Ghosts could stretch their minds.)
Alexius: Ágætis Byrjun was a revelation when it first arrived. When I found it, it was a peculiarity of a bygone age. Not in the sense that the band that produced it had vanished. Its creators continue to bow their guitars and sing their glistening songs. Nor did their music feel old or ossified. Its production is tasteful, its lyrics universal insofar as nonsense and Icelandic can be considered universal.
Yet it carried with it all the trappings of a weary, weary piece of music. Listening to it was like speaking with a friend with a headache. Bursts of transcendent lucidity, the same oases I had found in this desert, interspersed with anxious mumblings and attempted smiles. The one song I truly love, “Staralfur,” is largely so because of its associations with other art I love. There is one other song I love, “Hirjatao Hamast,” largely for its deep groove.
Too many have likened Sigur Rós’ music to the land of Iceland, putting up metaphors of fire and ice, cold and hot, loud and soft, the transient and uncertain that lies in between. Yet their music is more desert than volcanic. Its storms reshape the landscape, but only temporarily and the result is not firmness but tracklessness. Sigur Rós is not magma on water into stone, but wind on sand.
(Alexius. The lights turn on again, and a few bulbs burst. Ghosts. The record continues to play, its unnamed pieces gliding over the landscape. Alexius opens his eyes for the first time that night. The raindrops clog the cones of light, shining as they fall down to the gasping dust.)
Can healing come from music you don’t like? If the music misses the transfer from your ears to your heart, where does it end up? This tiger believes that the music of Sigur Rós works much like aspirin for the mind. Unlike food and certain supplements, aspirin usually has no dietary benefits. It is tasteless, white, and meant to be swallowed. Oh, it works on you. Your heart rate starts to flutter to the strings and races to catch up to the faster pieces. Yet Sigur Rós has remained impossible for me to write about in any conventional way. I have nothing to say about it. I cannot speak it. And, what’s more, I would caution readers against taking these statements as positive criticism. I have yet more to say.
( ) is composed of eight tracks labeled “Untitled X” with X being the number track it is. It’s the kind of titling strategy typically reserved for the visual arts or pocket-sized intermission tracks. I would posit, in fact, that Sigur Rós has composed nothing but long, achingly passionate intermission tracks its entire career. Their songs aim to sound primal, perhaps, as if we, the listeners, stumbled upon a corner of God’s creation untouched by profane imaginations. Instruments are used as naturalistically as paint in French Academic art from the nineteenth century. Their use is in creating textures, sonic surfaces that shift and flow. Elements of minimalist “classical” music occasionally pop their heads up. Violins and bowed guitars are omnipresent, but also absent. Though they are in some ways masterful players, the members of this ensemble are not interested in the limelight. The feeling is a straight-faced inversion of jazz: instead of many voices creating meaning through conversation, you have many voices subsumed into a single one.
While Jónsi, the lead singer of the band (and creator of the far superior pop-oriented album Go) personifies this voice, even his own voice is placed at the service of sheer unmarked beauty, as he often sings in gibberish. The effect is an insistent placidity. Even at its most tenebrous and abrasive, the band’s music is something you observe from a million miles away, rendering its hard-edged songs into hurricanes observed from a space station. ( ) is frustrating precisely because it tries so hard never to frustrate, offensive in its inoffensiveness, and creatively inert partly because of its constant shifting formlessness. Its parenthetical title is an empty signifier. Music can be beautiful and moving even when it’s entirely narcissistic or gazing into an abyss.
Alexius: (Wondering what it would be like to escape back to Earth. Hates listening to this album. Wishes he could just throw in Tortoise or Eluvium.) Post-rock is a beast of a genre. I spent a long time on thesirensound.net in high school, looking for extreme new sounds. There are a number of extraordinary bands that work in this elusive underground music scene. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tortoise, Labirinto, Thee Silver Mount Zion, and Japanese bands like Boredoms and its many spinoffs. Sigur Rós is the standard-bearer for the genre in many ways. The biggest reason is its relatively high level of commercial success.
(The rain pours down even harder. Puddles visible on the ground, and the ghosts suck them up and dance around in them, their bloated, famished stomachs waving proudly.)
Look. The rain keeps coming! The rain keeps coming! Praises be. People, I hate preaching. I can’t abide it. I won’t do it. But something makes me want to roar.
People in my editor’s community, the cultural discerners and their ilk, have an especial reverence for Sigur Rós. It’s easy to see why; the band’s music basically cultivates and reflects reverence. Unlike most post-rock, I can sense no banditry, radicalism, or playfulness about the band, especially lately. The all-female Japanese band Boredoms saturates witnesses in noise. GY!BE indicts and exposes rot at its best, yet even when it is simply intellectually sulking its mechanistic and thunderous music can inspire fear. On Millions Now Living Will Never Die, Tortoise set its rock grooves in a room with electronica and minimalism and jazz. The result was wondrous, and the band continued to develop. I would just say that Sigur Rós, while possibly the most crystalline and perfect of its ilk, has failed to develop at all over its long career, nor has it done much with music that others have not done better. ( ) represents the nadir to me. The point where its abstractions and its stained glass…Oh, I can’t believe it.
Narrator: It appears as though the entire rock band Zo Quivver and Quake has stormed the stage.
Zo: People! Do not listen to this mad prophet! What is this rain all about, Alexius?
Quivver: Harry, the tiger has nothing to do with it. Hell appears to be coming down around us.
Zo: What makes you say that?
(Hell was indeed coming down all around them. I am privileged to know such things. Parentheses are powerful, you know. They convey information about the future. I could say a few things about your future, you know. I’ll refrain, but know it won’t be pretty.)
Alexius: Has the day finally come? Sigur Rós is church music. That is no slight. Yet it often embodies the worst of the church as well as its best. Carries with it all the escapism, self-seriousness, and overinflated sense of its own worth.
( ) is emblematic of a musical fecklessness and paleness I find disturbing. There is no moment of this record that makes me recoil or squirm. I would give most of its songs relatively positive reviews, I suppose. Note how well Sigur Rós accomplishes what it sets out to do, with what grace and aplomb it guides the listener with sound. Yet its grace is to no end. When I think of this music, the lyrics of my favourite song come to mind. King Crimson’s “Starless,” the inestimable finishing track from their hard-rock album Red:
Sundown, dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Starless and bible black
Old friend charity
Cruel twisted smile
And the smile signals emptiness
Starless and bible black
(Alexius: And especially…)
Ice blue silver sky
Fades into grey
To a grey hope that oh yearns to be
Starless and bible black