While hardly a household name, Sigur Ros managed to come a long way in a short stretch of time; initially an obscure, youthful Icelandic ensemble, the band went on to attain relative stardom out of sheer talent, a difficult feat that's a testament to the caliber and ingenuity of the group.
This commercial and critical breakthrough, however, never would have transpired on the basis of Sigur Ros' debut, Von, alone. While many of the staples of the band were already in place, Von is a rather rough piece of work, an unpolished opus that even feels unfinished on more than a few occasions.
Nevertheless the band should certainly be commended for one thing; despite the fact that Von is Sigur Ros' debut, their style is already firmly entrenched in the realm of experimentation, and the group take many considerable risks throughout (many of which ultimately backfire).
The band's style is truly unique, as they employ a brand of evocative, understated beauty (sometimes though not often building to climactic, explosive crescendos) that conjure images of pristine arctic landscapes, icy soundscapes that are both hypnotizing and utterly bewitching. There's a certain innate purity to the band's gorgeous aural backdrops, untarnished by lifeless, sterile studio trickery or overly bombastic arrangements.
Von, rather than coming across as a conventional collection of songs, is very much a continuous suite, with each track flowing gracefully into the next one. It's not a solitary suite, however, as the album is bifurcated into two independent halves with an eighteen second track functioning as a brief intermission as well as a respite from the challenging, somewhat inaccessible content that Von bombards the listener with. The two suites are highly reminiscent of each other from both a structural and qualitative perspective, and thus could easily have composed a single prolonged, complex musical vision, but the band elected to arrange them as separate entities, perhaps fearing comparisons to prog dinosaurs like Jethro Tull with their single track Thick As A Brick or A Passion Play.
The album's primary flaw is rather simple; the music on Von is minimalistic beauty of the highest order, involving and moving, but the problem is that there's precious little music to be found on the CD. Von largely consists of a series of ambient sound effects and atmospheric noisemaking bereft of anything that could be construed as music; these passages serve as something akin to transitions between actual music, but this affords little consolation to the listener given that they seem to occupy far more time on the album than the music itself.
As alluded to, the music itself is strong, with ethereal arrangements and pretty vocals. As far as these vocals are concerned, Jon Por Birgisson, the band's lead vocalist, sings in the language Hopelandic, a linguistic hybrid created by Sigur Ros themselves. This counterfeit language quite suits the band, as Birgisson's voice is primarily used as an instrument as opposed to a medium for transmitting intellectual profundities. With a band like Sigur Ros the focus will invariably be on the music, and quite rightly so; thus the lack of intelligible, coherent lyrics is never a handicap, rather preventing the listener from being distracted from the true substance of the album.
While I admire the band's artsy tendencies I hardly feel that it would compromise the group's integrity if they focused more on their strengths, namely beautiful music that envelops the listener in Sigur Ros' rich, unique musical vision. Some of the intervening, less musical passages can actually be effective, with some innovative avant garde sonic experimentation; nonetheless it's glorious moments like Hun Joro… and Myrkur, tracks that can actually be called songs in the traditional sense, that are the highpoints of the album, and the paucity of tracks of this nature prevents the album from achieving its highly ambitious pretensions.
Von is by no means bad, and even at its worst it's far more intriguing and compelling than most groups' standard fare. The fluidity of the passages from track to track give the album a more epic, serious feel, as if it's a cohesive whole, and this adds to the album's alluring mystique. The album can indeed be appreciated as a single (or in this case double) musical entity, and while I believe this is largely to mask the album's lack of musical substance it certainly adds new dimensions to the overall work that most albums of this generation sorely lack.
Thus Von is a unique and promising debut, but its lack of depth and repeated lapses into amelodic tedium mar the overall product. It is by all means an ambitious and interesting piece of work, and points a way toward a bright future, but on its own it simply doesn't hold up, all too often succumbing to its pretentious, avant garde excesses that promote experimentation above music.
Sigur Ros' sophomore effort is rather counter intuitively entitled Good Start, a perplexing title due to both its status as the band's second album along with its restrained, not terribly emphatic description of its own quality. As it turns out neither of these aspects of the title are applicable; Von's existence cannot be denied, and the stellar caliber of the CD easily transcends the modest label of 'good' that it imposes upon itself, earning far greater accolades that denote more than mild approval.
Von proved that Sigur Ros were capable of generating amazing, evocative music, but it was impeded in this department by their baffling reluctance to provide said amazing music on more than a few occasions. The album was a labyrinth of overlapping sound effects and intersecting ambient noise, with only a modicum of its passages leading to any actual musical substance. This curtailed a debut that, in all other respects, represented a group with incredible innate gifts and seemingly limitless potential, leading one to believe that, if the band showed more discipline and temperance with regards to the ratio between music and incessant noisemaking, they would be capable of achieving truly great things.
Fortunately this assessment proved correct, as Sigur Ros do indeed achieve great things on Agaetis Byrjun. On their second outing the band have created a work of sonic brilliance and absolute beauty, with little to disrupt the flow of its aurally resplendent course.
By producing an album consisting of separate, individual songs, each with their own identity and purpose, the band has detracted from the overall cohesiveness that can be found on Von, which was established through its myriad links and segues. This is, however, a small price to pay for what amounts to a far more consistently entertaining, engaging experience, and few will miss Von's attempts at thematic unity.
After a short introduction the band immediately launch into Svern G-Englar, a ten minute epic of unspeakable gorgeousness and emotional potency. The track surpasses nearly any American or British attempt at aural beauty or catharsis inducing sonic splendor, with deeply moving vocal melodies and great keyboard work courtesy of the newest addition to the Sigur Ros ranks.
The instrumentation throughout the album is superb, as the musicians always find the perfect balance between minimalism and explosive crescendos, resulting in a product that can move one through a vast spectrum of emotional states with a fluid effortlessness that bespeaks the extent of the band's abilities.
While all nine tracks (excluding the diminutive, uneventful opener) are rather long, the album never grows tedious; it may be emotionally exhausting, but it's such a rewarding listen that one will always want to hear it in its entirety. There are some grounds for accusations of stylistic uniformity, as Sigur Ros have a very distinct sound that recurs throughout their albums, but the songwriting is sufficiently dynamic that any given track can easily be differentiated from its brethren.
Above all Agaetis Byrjun is simply a very unique, one of a kind experience, the zenith of Sigur Ros' creative abilities and a work of such stately, striking beauty that it's doubtful that any other rock act could duplicate its lush, hypnotic sound. The band remain rooted in their fragile, glacial purity, and they're certainly more than equipped to get the most out of this pristine tone. The arrangements are rich yet spare throughout so as to best emphasize the sheer glory of the group's signature sound.
Thus Agaetis Byrjun is a modern day classic, a unique and fulfilling experience that's as moving as it is powerful. It's difficult not to be touched by its alluring beauty, a beauty that, unlike most contemporary attempts at manufactured catharsis, is wholly pure and organic and all the more moving for it. Marrying great songwriting firmly entrenched in the band's strengths to superb arrangements, the album is a true masterpiece, a CD all the greater for the fact that no other group in the world of rock music could have created it.
Unfortunately, when a group discovers a unique, effective new sound, more often than not they're reluctant to vary their style to any meaningful extent, opting to religiously adhere to the successful new musical voice they've concocted. Original styles are rare in the world of rock, and thus when a band happens upon one they're just as apt to greedily horde it, clinging desperately to their new meal ticket, than endeavor to expand or build upon their findings, often resulting in exasperating redundancy and creative stagnation.
Sigur Ros, as daring and creative as they are, were not immune to this phenomenon, and as a testament to this fact once they reemerged from a three year hiatus they still had little of worth to add to their signature sound. This sabbatical failed to breed creativity in the Sigur Ros camp, resulting in a follow up to the brilliant Agaetis Byrjun that's often sounds like something akin to, at best, a mild retread, and, at worst, an absolute rehash.
This creative lull, however, hardly makes for that negative an equation; Sigur Ros may not have progressed much in the intervening years between Aegetis Byrjun and ( ), but their style remains fresh and unique, if unchanged, and they're just as adept at implementing their signature formula as ever. Given how few groups sound even vaguely reminiscent of Sigur Ros it's not as if their style is over-saturating the music market, and the end result is a product that can be forgiven for offenses that would normally fatally sabotage an album.
There are, of course, at least a modicum of differences between ( ) and its predecessors. The album is markedly more subdued than what came before, making for a kind of low keyed, understated beauty that may not be as immediate as it had been in the past but is certainly still just as hard hitting and powerful.
Also, whereas many songs culled from Sigur Ros' first two outings would build slowly, culminating in explosive crescendos, ( ) tends to be more restrained in that regard, resulting in tracks that seldom offer much in the way of instantly gratifying payoffs at the end of a number. This may frustrate some, denying them the drama and excitement of traditional musical climaxes or a proper sense of closure, but this relative subtlety is rewarding in its own way, and thanks to the intricate craftsmanship of Sigur Ros the songs remain as satisfying as ever, if a bit less accessible.
Another obstacle in the way of ordinary casual listeners, accustomed to the established status quo of the world of rock music, is the eccentric nature of the album's packaging. The album's title, of course, is hardly conventional, in this case likely less of a gimmick or affected touch and more of a natural decision that just happens to violate nearly every code of musical conformity, but this is the least of the CD's unorthodox qualities.
None of the songs on the album are ever named, nor is there anything vaguely reminiscent of a track listing, even one bereft of any expected nomenclature. This is a mild hindrance to reviewers, but a major blow against casual listeners who're apt to be turned off by this exceedingly unfriendly approach toward them; their expectations are sure to be dashed by the abrasive nature of the album's packaging, providing them with neither a title nor any hint of what precisely in on the CD that they're contemplating purchasing, and they may very well abstain from this potential acquisition solely on the basis of its mystifying refusal to confront shoppers with any actual information pertaining to what their prospective purchase is.
If one can overlook the inadvisable marketing of the album, however, they'll find a very strong product, if a familiar one for those with even any passing knowledge of the band. Admittedly ( ) offers nothing as transcendentally brilliant as Svern G-Englar (though numbers like track 4 are truly phenomenal), but it remains a highly consistent set, filled with the kind of captivating beauty that typifies Sigur Ros releases.
Like most Sigur Ros albums ( ) may be a tad overlong, especially given that despite a massive runtime it contains a mere eight songs, though while there would be some inherent benefits from a bit of judicious editing it wouldn't necessarily improve the overall album. Each track is fully absorbing while it's on, never feeling overextended or needlessly protracted, and so much time and effort is invested in each number that it would seem like a travesty to profane any song with callous excisions.
Ultimately ( ) is a very strong affair; its songwriting isn't quite up to par with Agaetis Byrjun, but it's still a great album in its own right, a consistently moving work of art that may offer little that's new or innovative but remains close to a perfect realization of the style pioneered by Sigur Ros. The blueprints it follows may not have changed much over the last few years, but they've aged surprisingly well, so much so that a bit of self-plagiarism can be easily forgiven.
While Takk… shares many of the flaws inherent to its predecessor, these are faults that intensify with each passing album, growing into bigger and bigger liabilities with each successive release. Thus defects that could have been dismissed as mild impediments on previous albums become far harder to defend on subsequent outings; ergo even the act of simply not rectifying the situation becomes a crime in and of itself, and CDs that have no new flaws whatsoever can be lambasted for simply standing still. This is a clear case of creative negligence, and requires no new misdeeds to escalate the severity of the charge.
Takk… is certainly culpable in this regard, refusing to address the problem of stylistic uniformity that had manifested itself on ( ); thus while on a qualitative level Sigur Ros' newest venture is nearly identical to its immediate predecessor, the fact that it remains mired in nearly universal sameness that extends to the band's preceding work detracts from the overall experience more acutely than that which had come before, if only thanks to the mere phenomenon of repetition, inevitably leading to the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The offense has been perpetrated one too many times, a musical atrocity that no longer inspires critical generosity and forgiveness as a ramification of the group's new status of repeat offenders.
It's not that Sigur Ros albums are interchangeable; all of the band's output boasts terrific songwriting and performances that ably differentiate each CD from the rest of the group's canon. Nevertheless, the appeal of the band's material is diluted by their stylistically static form, as from a structural perspective each Sigur Ros album is nearly congruent to past entries in the group's discography (save Von, which negatively distinguished itself from the rest of their oeuvre with its dearth of music and incessant ambient filler masquerading as artistically cohesive segues).
It's a pity that until this matter is resolved no Sigur Ros album will be able to fulfill the band's incredible innate potential or once again scale the heights attained on Agaetis Byrjun, but at least a CD needn't represent the zenith of a group to merit attention, and thus even if Takk… can't achieve musical immortality it's still quite enjoyable to listen to.
Once again the caliber of the songwriting is very strong, perhaps not quite up to the level of ( ) but rather impressive nonetheless. The LP is just as gorgeous as one would expect from a Sigur Ros album, with hypnotic soundscapes entrancing the listener for the full duration of their runtime. At times the album seems oddly uplifting, in sharp contrast to the group's usual tenebrous fare, sometimes even evoking images of lush green pastures as opposed to arctic tableaus, and this sonic disparity at least mildly distinguishes the album from Agaetis Byrjun and ( ) by virtue of this unprecedented tonal shift.
This sonic seasonal shift doesn't always apply, and there are still icy remnants of the band's old wintry modality; obviously the exact associations elicited by the music are wholly subjective, but there are tangible differences in the group's sound on certain occasions that doubtless convey a different sort aural message to the listener that will lead to a different spectrum of imaginative interpretations. Thus it's clear at what points the listener's associations will be propelled in a vastly different direction courtesy of these new tonal shifts, inspiring a kind of mindset that would never have been applicable on the band's prior work.
Still, regardless of a potential lighter tone the album is far too reminiscent of its predecessors, rendering it a rehash of a rehash; while adept at songwriting and performing the band are badly in need of an infusion of fresh ideas and creativity or else their entire career will consist of endlessly remaking the same album. Even if this worst case scenario is realized the band will still be worth listening to thanks to their unique and involving style, but they certainly won't be the saviors of rock that they're often heralded as, rather a novelty outfit with a single trick that sustains their entire lifespan as an ensemble.
It's remarkable that a work of such transcendent beauty as Hvarf/Heim could be so utterly superfluous, but such is the sad state of the two disc collection, a largely redundant product that will offer little of note to longtime Sigur Ros fans.
While technically not a single track on the album has ever been available before, this is a rather misleading fact that merely signifies that no individual number is completely the same as it had been on a prior outing as opposed to indicating that the collection is filled with genuinely new content. Hvarf/Heim is predominantly composed of alternate or live cuts of old tracks boasting only the most negligible of modifications from their original incarnations, rendering the album an exercise in repetition that will inspire more sensations of déjŕ vu than emotional catharsis.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that not only is there repetition from past works, but there's even overlap between the two discs themselves. For some inexplicable reason Von (the track, not the album), though already appearing on disc one in an alternate form, also recurs as a live cut on disc two, and by no means are the two versions sufficiently removed from one another to justify their dual placement.
Thus most of the album is consummately extraneous; the first disc offers two alternate versions of old Sigur Ros staples that fail to register as anything new or exciting, while disc two is exclusively comprised of live cuts of tracks derived from the band's four proper albums. Despite the potentially intriguing fact that the live numbers are all acoustic-only, the allure of that prospect is promptly dispelled by the fact that they're still virtually indistinguishable from their old forms.
Admittedly these tracks, while redundant for those who already own the entirety of the band's oeuvre, are still as strikingly beautiful as they've always been, so it's not as though listening to the album is unrewarding. When one holds the album to a different standard, however, taking into account the massive extent of overlap with past works, then Hvarf/Heim loses much of its appeal.
The album's saving grace, however, appears on disc one in the form of three completely new songs. Uniformly brilliant, these tracks are the only valid reason to seek out the album, and they constitute a rather convincing argument for any diehard Sigur Ros fan to purchase the collection. Hjomalind in particular offers quite the incentive to obtain the album, as it's a glorious track that's just as enthralling and evocative as the band's best work.
While these three tracks are eminently worthwhile, they're not quite sufficient to inspire anyone save the most devoted Sigur Ros fans to pay for a two disc product. A casual fan, even with a pronounced fondness for the group, shouldn't feel compelled to acquire the album, and can easily make do with the band's normal releases alone without feeling as if they've missed out on something of monumental importance.
The album's rating can be misleading, as its high grade can be attributed to the fact that the collection is filled with great tracks that are as compelling now as they were at the time of their original release, but when one factors in the redundancy one's left with a markedly less worthwhile purchase.
Thus the album can only be recommended to the most diehard of Sigur Ros fans who absolutely need to own every last song by the group. Once owning it, however, they won't simply experience the obsessively anal thrill of owning even the most obscure releases by the group but rather will also find three very strong songs, rendering the album something more than fodder for hardcore completists.
When a group with an established sound attempts to progress they're confronted with a serious challenge, one that's proven to be insurmountable for many a rock outfit. While it's certainly important to make creative strides during a group's lifespan the band must still take pains to ensure that they preserve their artistic essence rather than simply embracing a new form at the expense of their unique identity.
There's no question that Sigur Ros were poised precariously on the brink of stagnation; ( ) was an inferior rehash of Aegaetis Byrjun, while Takk… was an inferior rehash of ( ). Due to the group's innate talent these albums still proved to be eminently worthwhile products, but nevertheless it was clear that Sigur Ros were in a creative rut, and moreover that extricating them from said rut would be a decidedly difficult proposition.
Unfortunately, when progression finally came to Sigur Ros it manifested itself in a form that came at the expense of the group's very foundation, interfering with their core musical philosophy and effectively dispelling the alluring mystique that made the band who they were.
This assertion is likely hyperbolic to at least some extent, but the course that Sigur Ros chose for their artistic progress runs directly contrary to the elements that comprised the band's greatest strengths.
For some misguided reason Sigur Ros decided to start producing more 'conventional' songs, meaning less complex structures, diminished experimentation and a far greater focus on vocals. This is a truly bewildering decision that ultimately compromises the band's individuality; Sigur Ros have never been a pop group and electing to masquerade as one now does little save forcing the group's music to conform to a far more artistically limited and predictable structure.
Not every song is forced to abide by these tenets, and some of those that do indeed adhere to these conventions are somewhat salvaged by the group's inherent talent, but for the most part filtering the Sigur Ros sound through the medium of these constraining, prepackaged and borrowed notions of form and design prevents the band from playing to their own strengths, transfiguring a vastly original and trailblazing group into a bipolar mainstream knockoff.
When I say mainstream, however, I don't mean the type of mainstream that actually results in commercial success; the mainstream equivalent of Sigur Ros would certainly ward off any casual listeners interested in hearing a catchy pop tune. Between the Hopelandic lyrics (save for All Alright, which actually is in English), the lack of 'rocking' power and the deliberate pace few novice fans would flock to Sigur Ros as a result of this album. That makes the band's decision to embrace standard pop dynamics all the more mystifying, as it appeases neither old fans nor potential new ones.
This change in structure is hardly the album's only liability, however; whereas in the past Sigur Ros could effortlessly move one to tears through a few notes, on this outing the attempts at emotion come across as forced and inorganic. The band simply try too hard to be moving; in the past they utilized minimalistic beauty to achieve their desired ends, but on this album they simply bombard the listener with attempts to be moving, to the point of outright absurdity when they employ a large orchestra as if to hunt you down, seize you and force you to experience catharsis against your will.
Beyond even these unwelcome changes is the fact that the group's core sound has changed to a degree. The arctic, glacial soundscapes that Sigur Ros used to conjure and navigate in their music have become somehow blander and less distinctive. This is, needless to say, purely subjective, but for me the loss of that sound is akin to a total paradigm shift in the band's identity.
Another element that felt like a betrayal can be found in the opener, Gobbledigook. I prefer Sigur Ros when they're in a darker mode, but I have minimal objections if they opt to make their sound more warm and optimistic. Gobbledigook, however, is overtly sunny and cheery, rendering it a grating ordeal that would be akin to Nick Cave singing Good Day Sunshine.
Despite these myriad objections the album isn't actively bad. While the songwriting is a good deal worse than what I've come to expect from Sigur Ros, there are instances of solid melodies, and the music isn't completely flaccid when it comes to evoking an emotional response.
The truth is, however, that for a group as adept as Sigur Ros at moving the listener and immersing them in their world of pristine arctic beauty it's very distressing to be confronted with banal attempts at forced emotion and an inability to transport the listener to the icy vistas that once held their audience spellbound in cathartic bliss. Sigur Ros have simply sacrificed far too much for the sake of their 'progression,' and the result is a product bereft of the magic that once animated the band's world.