Do we all remember Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust? Different, wasn’t it? Icelandic post-rock giants Sigur Rós essentially abandoned all that had propelled them into the sights of pop music and adopted, ironically, a much more pop-oriented sound. The minimalistic beauty of Ágætis byrjun and the rich, thick musical layers present in ( ) were left behind for playful melodies, acoustic guitars, and (get this) tempos above 80 bpm! In a Sigur Rós album! Heresy! This shift was first noticeable to observant listeners in Takk… , but it was really Með suð that embraced their new mentality. And then they went on an indefinite hiatus. I mean, I liked Með suð, but I never wanted to see it become their swan song. This is the band that released ( ), the best album of the century so far (in my opinion, obvs), and they sign out with an album shows the band members naked on the cover? No thanks.
And now we’re at Valtari. Sigur Rós have pulled themselves out of hiatus, dusted off their wool sweaters and ebows (no, this isn’t a typo), and released yet another fantastic album to add to their catalogue of fantastic albums. Most surprisingly, Valtari sees the band turn their musical direction around yet again, now heading back towards ( ) and far, far away from Með suð. 18 years after their formation, we are being treated to some of Sigur Rós’ most ethereal and powerful music yet. There is power carried behind every note in every bar in every song. The soaring, sweeping melodies evoke such a wide range of emotions in every song, from elation to pure melancholy within just a few minutes. Take the track Varúð – time and time again, the strings and the drums begin to swell, with Jónsi’s vocals doing what they do best in the back seat of the soundscape. More than once, everything gets louder and more passionate, only to collapse back into the crushing melancholy of the verse. Then, towards the end of the track, the crescendo builds up for a final time, with crashing drums and piercing guitars, and just when you’re sitting on the edge of your chair, waiting for that feeling of release and elation, everything just collapses yet again and you’re left with quiet vocals and strings, horribly disappointed that the crescendo didn’t resolve into the pure elation that it seemed promising.
This is the theme that carries out throughout the entire record. Disappointment and melancholy, but not even the slightest in a bad way. It’s an example of just how much control Sigur Rós has over their compositions. And the most fantastic thing is, if/when you listen to the above track, you’d feel totally different emotions to those that I felt. Each listener has their own emotional perception of every track. Every now and again, a track will threaten to break into a commercially friendly melody or a sing-a-long-able chorus – while I wouldn’t condemn this if it happened, it never did. A number of times, I thought to myself “and here is the single”. But it never happened. Magnificent.
Yet again, Jónsi’s vocal work really takes the cake on Valtari. It’s perfect. Contrary to the vast majority of contemporary music, Jónsi weaves his vocals into the musical layers as a backing instrument rather than the main feature of the songs. This is most prominent in the title track, Varðeldur, and Varúð, where the entire feeling of the song is drastically altered not just by the noises that Jónsi makes, but also the way that they’re mixed in with the rest of the instruments.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of everything that Sigur Rós has done. Can you tell? I seem to be taking negatively about Með suð, for which I apologise – I like it, just not as much as ( ). In no way have Sigur Rós broken any new ground with their sixth record, but as a passionate fan of their entire catalogue, I’m not about to complain. A shout out to ( ) is always welcome in my books. Anyway, in short – buy Valtari. If any album this year will sweep you off of your feet and take you on a roller coaster of musically-invoked emotions, it’s this one.