Wander Lusting: Sigur Ros’ Valtari

Iceland’s Sigur Ros aren’t your conventional rock band. But, if you’ve heard their music, you know that already.  You also know whether you love or despise their music.  Strong words but from my experience, there isn’t a middle ground with this band; a friend once described their music to him as the sound of cats screeching.  Personally, I fall into the camp of unabashed adoration. From the first time I heard Agaetis Byrjun, their second record, over a decade ago, I was a fan; here was music of such a strange haunting, ethereal, and transcendent nature with a lead singer whose voice sounded like something out of Middle Earth or Wagner.  It was spellbinding.  Then came one of the early stories about this odd group of Icelanders that sang an invented language called “Hopelandic” as opposed to their native Icelandic tongue. After some time, the band debunked this self-perpetuated “mythologizing”. (A part of me, though, still wishes this were true.) Between Agaetis Byrjun and Valtari, Sigur Ros has released three proper studio albums along with some EPs and two live film recordings. For die-hard fans of the band, I would highly recommend viewing the beautifully shot Heima, displaying a collection of live recordings by the band across various cities and outdoors spaces in their homeland of Iceland; it’s like watching one of those Planet Earth Docs without the voice overs.  Also for those that are not fans, this film is worth viewing to give a better context for the inspiration for their music.

The first thing about Valtari is that if you were not a fan before, this record will not (necessarily) change your thoughts. However, I think this might be one of the strongest, if not the best, records they have produced. At the heart of nearly every Sigur Ros song and album are two recurrent themes: expansiveness and majesty.1 The songs are epic and dramatic in nature, filled with massive crescendos, layers of sound, and wide array of instrumentation from the standard rock staples of electric guitars and drums to the more classical composition oriented violins, cellos, xylophones, gongs and various other woodwinds and percussive instruments that my untrained ear cannot discern.  (Perfect music for a film score (see above).)

Almost nothing that Sigur Ros does is restrained, subtle, or lo-fi by any extent of the imagination2 and Valtari is no exception to this. After the relative upbeat nature and “pop” feel of their previous record, the band has returned to a more pensive and somber tone with longer and more layered compositions.  What differentiates this record from their previous offerings is the more pronounced presence of electronic music elements, found-sound and non-instrument based elements. When I first listened to the opening track “Eg anda” on vinyl, I found myself getting up to see if there were any defects or dust on the record or stylus because there were all these hisses and fuzz throughout the track. What I later realized when listening to the digital version was that these sounds were part of the mix. They purposefully created a “phonograph” effect. It recurs later at the start of “Daudalogn” and one gets the sense of being dragged through a music filter into another world. And, this more than anything is what I love about Sigur Ros, generally, and Valtari, specifically: the experience of taking the listener out of her conventional day-to-day life and immersing them in an a-temporal space (some might say “actually being present”) surrounded by an undulating sea of sound. In many ways, breaking this album down song by song is both challenging and does a disservice to the record; it should experience as a whole from start to finish. Having said that, if you listen to only one track from this album as a sort “microcosm” for the whole, you must listen to “Varuo”. The song begins soft and slow with an almost electronic downtempo tinge and Jonsi‘s patented high falsetto. For most of the track, the band consistently plays with the listener’s expectation of where the song will go, slowly increasing the tempo and then dropping out all the instruments out of nowhere. At about the four minute mark a choir of young voices is introduced, Jonsi’s vocals drop out, and the band enters into this slight-distortion tinged guitar medley, concluding with a slow fade out by the choir.

I don’t know what “Valtari” means in the Icelandic and for once I don’t care.  Because when you don’t understand the language, all you have is the thoughts and feelings the record inspires:

the sound of wandering; getting lost and finding yourself walking down some unknown alley; the break of dawn and the cracking embers of the dusk; overlooking vast hillsides and valleys, large expanses of snow-covered fields, windswept sea-side cliffs, calving glaciers and fjords (if you lived in Iceland you could see these); and even (bike) rides through empty city streets when the people are long gone and the buildings are like sentinels keeping you company in the night.

But, what does it mean to you…

To listen to Valtari in its entirety click here.

And last a quote from the band:

“i really can’t remember why we started this record, i no longer know what we were trying to do back then. i do know session after session went pear-shaped, we lost focus and almost gave up…did give up for a while. but then something happened and form started to emerge, and now i can honestly say that it’s the only sigur rós record i have listened to for pleasure in my own house after we’ve finished it.” – georg

a.a.

1I will admit that the language barrier has a huge impact on how I interpret and experience these songs. Because I cannot understand what Jonsi (the lead singer) is saying, his singing is merely another instrument in the mix.

2In this way they resemble so many of the instrumental and/or composition focused indie-rock bands like God Speed! You Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky, both of which I am reminded of countless times while listening to this record because of the more pronounced and extended guitar work, or even the more “conventional” Radiohead – conventional only in so far as they actually write songs as opposed to the work of the aforementioned bands.

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