Some friends of mine were lucky enough to witness Sigur Rós perform in Iceland last year and I’ve been meaning to ask them if the locals were singing along. Granted, some of the lyrics are sung in Jónsi’s own Hopelandic tongue, but I’m almost positive that the majority of sounds escaping his mouth are truly Icealandic. And I have to wonder whether any words can stand up under the weight of such emotion — under the pure power of a Sigur Rós performance. I have been so afraid of what would be lost in translation that I’ve never even bothered to research what the words ‘sigur rós’ mean. But now I’ve got to wonder whether those kids in Iceland hear what I hear when they listen to albums such as Ágætis byrjun and Takk…. I’ve got to wonder if they sing along at the shows. Are they able to escape into their own bodies — using this epic music as a portal to something dreams are made of? Or are they grounded by the literal meaning of each track?
Those were the thoughts that were occupying my mind while I waited for the band to take the stage at 1stBank Center last night. But as soon as the lights went down and the shadows behind the curtain began to move, all real-world thoughts were put aside as I was carried away to a place where words are nothing more than tonal characters in a world where sound reigns supreme. Meaning is not only open to interpretation, it is also free to be completely ignored.
The show opened with nothing but shadows behind a curtain. Arms beating a drum, unknown entities with a variety of instruments, and a giant Jónsi caressing his guitar with a cello bow. The barrier between the band and audience sustained an enigmatic level that seemed to have been lost some time ago. When the band went on hiatus a few years back, and Jónsi explored his solo project, Sigur Rós lost a little of its mystery. The fact that real human beings made this music — human beings with creative difference and real ‘human being’ problems — took some of the magic out of the music. Instead of images of barren lands, and underwater explorations, I could only picture the faces of the men behind the sound. The shadow curtain allowed me to sustain a level of disbelief for a few brief moments. It reminded me of a time when I was in a club in Brisbane, Australia where Sigur Rós had played the night before — the bouncer was explaining their sound to a couple teen-aged girls as ‘whales humping’. Before the curtain fell, with images of the Northern Lights reflecting off its surface, you could almost believe a circle-of-life type event was happening right there on the stage.
When the dramatic unveiling of the band happened during the climax of “Ný Batterí”, there might not have been any whales making love, but the 12 people performing that most-epic of songs sent a surge through the audience that caused a tidal wave of applause. In fact, premature appreciation became common throughout the night, as the crowd wasn’t familiar with how quiet some of the selections can get, before exploding back into existence without warning.
For the next two hours, the audience at the 1stBank Center were able to forget they just paid $10 to park in a dirt lot at a zero-personality corporate event center. Once those lights were down, we were treated to a visual experience comparable to that of Pink Floyd. Yet, looking around the arena, so many people had their eyes closed — just riding the waves vibrating off the stage.One great thing about 1stBank is that the sound is amazing. I doubt there was an inch of that place that didn’t sound perfect.
The set was heavy with material from Takk…, which made me very happy, but they also threw in a couple tracks from Ágætis byrjun and ( ) — making it an incredible set for those of us who have been fans for a long time. As for new material, it’s almost as if the band has shunned their latest effort, Valtari — going with no less than 4 tracks from their upcoming album instead. The Kveikur material showcases a much darker, almost industrial side of the band — something I welcome with open arms.
So when it comes down to it, I will never be able to unlearn what I now know about Sigur Rós. They will never be the mystery they were to me when I first discovered them. But they will also never be ‘just another band’. Jónsi might have become a bona fide rock star, and there were moments last night when the band resembled Explosions in the Sky, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails — but Sigur Rós will always be something completely different. They will always be a band that can transcended language. Never before have I been so moved by something I can’t even understand.