Walking into the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Tuesday, September 27, I realized I should have probably worn something nicer than a ketchup-stained plaid shirt and tattered jeans in such a beautiful, ornate building. But once I grabbed my plush seat while the lights dimmed, the Icelandic band Sigur Rós took over any and all thought – especially that of the self-conscious nature. They are currently on an American tour, sharing their thunderous album Kveikur, their transcendental album Valtari and, of course, their early releases that die-hard fans know and cherish.
Since I used to be a hipster (I’m reformed now, thanks), I am acquainted with the other-worldly sounds that are sometimes discomforting, but most of all fulfilling, that the trio puts out. If you are unaware of these three men who hail from Iceland, they can best be summed up as an experience, and not just as another concert event. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson belts an amazing falsetto and uses a cello bow on his guitar, while bassist Georg Hólm and drummer/percussionist Orri Páll Drýason melt their instruments in line with the floating vocals. At some points, Birgisson’s voice became an instrument, and it might have to do with the fact that he is singing an entirely made up language, called “Hopelandic” by fans. Now, not all of their music is nonsensical, some is Icelandic, but their music truly evaporates into the pit of your stomach – its loss of verbal meaning finds itself in your senses.
The light show was just as breathtaking as the sounds streaming forth from the musicians. When billowing drums hit running, a watery background would turn into a chaotic thunderstorm. Then, it could make you feel as if you were in a forest, with twinkling lights and fog smears as the depth of their screens came into play. You were swathed in darkness, yet consumed by such hopeful tones. It’s hard to articulate the way Sigur Rós is able to regurgitate such a breadth of emotions. Neither nostalgia nor exactly hope, they take you through a spectrum that bridges memory with emotion. Plus, with the flowing vocals sliding in and out, dancing with the light show and acting as a film over the instruments, they walked us willingly into their dreamland.
Then, piano tinkles from their album Takk… drifted into their orchestration and Birgisson took a seat for the chord-sprinkled tune “Glósóli.” It was amazing how many sounds could fill up the theater with just the trio producing them. I looked around and felt as if I were in an Icelandic jungle, if ever such a thing could be created. Whenever they threw in a tune from their latest album, we were once again plunged into darker themes. Nature-inspired light shows blasted throughout with the drums crashing like thunder. Elements of rock ’n ’roll were called forth and mixed fluidly into their eclectic behavior and persona. I thought Birgisson’s violin ways of playing the guitar was what helped produced this unique, albeit startling, sound. The one continuous thought I had through the light and dark balance of their show was, however, where do they come up with his stuff?
When it would quiet down to just Birgisson’s vocals, he was able to manipulate them as if they were just another button on a Dj mixer. Their first set was mostly comprised of songs from the early 2000s album ( ) and I tried not to feel disappointment. My favorite album was Valtari and just like any music lover, I can feel a little side-swiped when my desires and imaginings are not fed entirely. However, I was still impressed with their talents, especially the drummer. I don’t know how many of us can say that we’ve been so good at multitasking that we can play both drums and piano at the same time, but Drýason can. They took us through a windstorm, quite literally and figuratively, with their thematic film and sound.
After an intermission, the band came back but remained hidden behind one of their screens for their first song. Discordant sounds were pushed through with vocals and I wondered how they picked through all the songs from their looming discography. Artistic choices had to be made to take the crowd through their storm, without losing us along the way. It was also a beautiful choice to situate themselves inside their light show – I had never seen such a spectacular set-up that was not overdone at the same time. Graphics took us through a pixilated land that at times looked like an explosion of stars, and at others, children or perhaps two people coming together. Piano with electronic backing then gave us one of their popular songs, “Starálfur.” There was an acoustic vibe for a single moment, with Birgisson crooning over the bass, but almost immediately we were flooded back into their electronic maze.
It was the type of music that left your ears dazzled, and while I could never quite get into their dark album Kveikur on my own time, I enjoyed being jolted into their haunting orchestra; it would ultimately transition into something more hauntingly beautiful. They walked a fine line between thrash and poignancy, and Birgisson would either address his guitar violently with the cello bow or touch it tenderly, as if to whisper out a sound. They shared with us a host of their musical history: “Ekki Múkk,” “Samskeyti,” “Ný Batterí” and “Fljótavík” were all played throughout the show. Yet capturing the names and moments didn’t really matter to me once the show began. Their glittering backgrounds and shocking light shows brought a second dimension to their music, and “Hopelandic” resides in a land that doesn’t care about ketchup-stained shirts, or names or your stupid self-conscious worries. It only cares about drifting you away, and Sigur Rós did exactly that at the Opera House.
All photos are by Andrew Duffy and can be found here.