Sigur Rós, ‘Valtari’ – Album Review
Cathartic, ephemeral, hypnotic, rhapsodic: a new Sigur Rós release begets a grand swirl of adjectives summoned to describe the Icelandic band’s minimalist/maximalist symphonics. Back at the end of the last century, the quartet broke the world open. Debut ‘Von’ and follow-up ‘Ágætis byrjun’ had the band opening for Radiohead and scoring the climax of a Wes Anderson movie — two top tier accomplishments in the hip young, white ecosystem. In an ironic turn in the years since, the majestic world they created, replete with leadman Jonsi’s nonsense falsettos, bowed guitars and transcendent climaxes, has become the box which confines them.
The subsequent offerings have not been bad by any means: 2008’s ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’ saw a tighter band (read: shorter songs) playing something more like rock ’n’ roll, and 2011 retrospective ‘Inni’ made sense of their decade of wonderment. But what now?
It’s not exactly auspicious to have a band member withdraw from a trip around the world because “touring is boring.” That mild tragedy summarizes what’s happened with this still beautiful band — one that seems to be withering on the vine. A listen through ‘Vulgari,’ while obviously pretty, does not provoke in the manner that their releases once did, except for perhaps causing a snooze or two.
Opener ‘Ég anda’ coruscates as you hoped it would, Jonsi’s vocals layered with horns and xylophone. ‘Ekki Múkk’ starts slowly, Jonsi’s whispers opening up with bow strings building out into an outerspace drift, and ‘Varúð’ does much of the same, though with a few piano keys in the beginning and the welcome entry of drums to drive the song toward its conclusion.
The thing is, too many of these conclusions are forgone. While ‘Rembihnútur,’ with its more forthright percussion, shows the band at their strongest (and most succinct) at just over five minutes, the sequenced stretches of ‘Dauðalogn,’ ‘Varðeldur’ and especially the title track, ‘Valtari,’ grow scarily close to somnambulance. By the time we reach ‘Fjögur píanó,’ those titular piano chords are enticingly direct.
‘Valtari’ is (nearly) as gorgeous as previous Sigur Ros records, and, indeed, it would have blown up in 1997. But now, six albums in, this blend of resplendent soundscape has grown a little stale. A concert of theirs might still be transcendent, so long as they band doesn’t all quit from boredom.