REVIEW: Sigur Ros - Valtari

For better or worse, few bands working today have a sound as instantly recognizable as Sigur Ros.  From Jonsi’s ethereal voice, to the invented “Hopelandic” lyrics, to the band’s dense sonic landscapes and trademark post-rock song structure, at this point Sigur Ros is as much a brand as a band.  Such easy band/brand identification certainly has its benefits1 but it can also restrict creativity, forcing artists to choose between exploration and comfortable profitability.  In a very real way, how a successful band responds to this tension tends to define its legacy. 

The desire to balance these competing drives appears to be at the heart of Sigur Ros’s last two releases, Meo Suo I Eyrum Vio Spilum Endalaus (2008) and Valtari (2012) and, while neither reaches the heights of Agaetis Byrjun or Takk,2 on the whole, Sigur Ros has managed to explore new artistic terrain while maintaining the distinctive sound that made them popular in the first place.  With Meo, Sigur Ros took their sound to a much poppier place, replacing orchestral flourishes with guitars, scoring a triumphant post-amputation celebration, and even singing a song in English.  However, shortly thereafter, rumors swirled that the band was planning another stylistic shift and was working on a less noisy, more ambient record.  Though those original sessions were ultimately scrapped, the album that Sigur Ros ultimately recorded, Valtari, certainly reflects the band’s newfound desire to explore the minimalist, atmospheric elements of their trademark sound.

In Icelandic, “Valtari” literally means “steamroller” and, with its insistent pace and slow-building power, the album effectively conjures the same methodical force as that titular machine. While this effect is not always easy to discern within individual tracks, when considering the album as a whole, the bands goals seem clear.  Indeed, after several listens, I find myself thinking of Valtari as an intricately crafted suite since, taken out of sequence, the individual tracks lose much of their meaning. 

Opener “Eg Anda” and lead single “Eki Mukk” both build from silence, using layered vocals (with choral backing) and orchestral flourishes familiar from the bands previous efforts.  However, each track stops just short of the loud, cathartic release that fans have come to expect from their prior albums.3  The next few tracks follow a similar pattern, building the layers of sound and vocals ever higher each time but stopping frustratingly shy of the expected full “release.”  But, after the sixth track, “Daudalogn,” Sigur Ros slips into progressively softer and more atmospheric sounds, ultimately bringing the album to a close with a deliberate deconstruction of the very elements that it worked so hard to build throughout the first half of the piece.

To my mind, the most fascinating track on Valtari is its last, “Fjogur Piano” (“Four Pianos”).  Rather than constructing the track a layer at a time, the sparse sounds of the piano seem to emerge fully formed but suspended along a single trembling thread, forever threatening to break apart.  As the track progresses, this tenuous line holds - even as the piano softens, fades, and ultimately disperses.  It is in many ways reminiscent of The Disintegration Loops, with its textural minimalism and decomposing song structure.  However, while William Basinski was documenting the literal sound of entropy, Sigur Ros seems to revel in seeing just how little it takes to hold their composition together before allowing it to quietly dissipate.  It is a conscious choice that would be a pretty curiosity on its own but, as the conclusion of such an intricately crafted suite, it takes on a new, spine tingling resonance.

Whether Valtari represents a new direction for Sigur Ros or a fascinating detour, only Jonsi and his bandmates know.  Regardless, it is gratifying to see the band test its limits without sacrificing the essential elements that drew listeners to them in the first place.

[1] E.g. boatloads of cash, sold out shows, song placement in car commercials, ennui-ridden hipster groupies.
[2] I realize that there are accents on many of these letters but I don’t feel like buying a Hopelandic keyboard or going through the Word symbol list every time I type a song name or album title so you’ll have to make do with these coarse anglified spellings.

[3] Ekki Muk in particular sounds almost like it could be a B-side from Agaetis Byrjun.  But, each time the band hits the point at which they “should” burst into euphoria, they bring the vocals and instruments back a notch and continue on as before or allow the track to fade away.