Since their late-1990s debut, Iceland’s Sigur Ros have reigned as the masters of orchestral, ethereal pop. With lead singer Jonsi’s (aka Jón Þór Birgisson) otherworldly falsetto serving as an instrument (especially given his propensity to sing in “Vonlenska” – also known as Hopelandic – a made-up language with no meaning that focuses on the sounds of the words), a strong classical feel, and a capacity for instrumental experimentation, the band created a spectacular and inimitable sound over their first four albums. Thus the pop sensibilities and more rhythmic approach on their fifth album, 2009’s wonderful Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (“With a buzz in our ears, we play endlessly”), came as surprise, as did Jonsi’s excellent solo record Go in 2010.
Now comes their latest, Valtari – and it should make everyone happy. Long-time fans who didn’t like the change of sound on the last album will welcome the return of their expansive and majestic slow builds. And more recent fans who’ve been drawn in by the more “conventional” album will, hopefully, be open to appreciating the full range of beautiful music these guys are capable of.
The slow and majestic build is on full and glorious display on “Ég Anda,” the opening track. It starts with choral voices in an almost Benedictine tone – you can hear someone breathing as each choral section starts (although I assume the chorus is electronically generated) – while instruments begin droning underneath. Then a clock chimes and random noises echo as the classic chiming guitar slowly – very slowly – brings things to a lush climax. “Varúð” is an even stronger example, murmured verses breaking into a soaring chorus propelled by Jónsi’s exquisite voice and swelling orchestral sounds before thumping drums start a final drone that rises to an expansive finish.
“Rembihnútur” is about the only song that pays homage to the previous album’s more pop sound – but just barely. It’s simply a bit more vocally melodic but remains firmly in the orchestral category with the addition of oddball touches, such as what sounds like a toy piano. Electronic squelches punctuate the otherwise quiet “Varðeldur.”
This is music with a sacred core: you can imagine listening in a church, a robed choir rising to provide wordless, ethereal backing to the wistful vocals. Start with “Dauðalogn” for the strongest example of this sound, but make sure you listen to the full album, multiple times, to let the power of this music wash over and captivate you. Just don’t expect to understand the words – even if you do know Icelandic!