Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sigur Rós craft familiar a opus like cotton candy -- a delight that doesn't linger

By Jon Jacobs

November 14, 2007 | Icelandic epic-post-rockers Sigur Rós has never been shy on ambition for its music.

Whether it be the simplistic drift of Von, the sweeping brilliance of the band's untitled magnum opus, commonly referred to as ( ), or the bombastic jubilance of Takk, Sigur Rós has always been a centerpiece of modern progressive rock. The band's abilities to craft achingly gorgeous albums has never wavered, always hitting the mark with such an astute precision that we often feel other post-rock bands owe us an apology.

If Sigur Rós is guilty of any musically criminal behavior, it can only be redundancy. While each of four studio albums lacks nothing in poignant ingenuity, none pushes the boundaries of the musical scope Sigur Rós has long since adopted. This occurs to such a degree that one could take a random selection of songs by the group and it would have the feel of a full studio album. So when word arrived of a two-disc compilation album by Sigur Rós, most fans viewed it as a regular studio album, because, well . . . it's going to sounds like one.

It is not surprising then to discover that Hvarf/Heim sounds a great deal like a regular Sigur Rós studio album. The album's flow is impeccably crafted; the tracks are ethereal and breathtaking, often evoking a form of spiritual reverence that we have come to expect from the quartet. Yet, behind the lush production and the empyreal arrangements, there is something considerably alien at play here.

The change is first felt in the robust opener from the album's first disc Harvf, where we find the normally subdued group thrashing in full force. Walls upon walls of distortion and instrumentation fill the track to its brim, as though balancing a drink from toppling during an earthquake and barely succeeding. Though Sigur Rós has quite certainly let loose the chains of distortion before, it has never felt so immediate and stark. The result is startling.

As the band members are notorious for, they again shift direction with arguably the most experimental track they have ever attempted, the neo-ambient Hafsol; comprised of 12 minutes of directionless, otherworldly soundscapes. And yes, it's illustrious, and absolutely so. The track's flow and resonance force you to lose yourself in the sublimity of its artistic creation. Even with its considerable length, the song ends before you want it to, feeling as though it could have deviated infinitely and still maintained yourattention.

If the five-track first disc wasn't enough to swallow, the second disc, Heim, a collection of live recordings, is the icing on the cake. For fans who haven't seen Sigur Rós in concert, the tracks give a glimpse of the uniquely sublime nature of the band's performances. The songs are less dense, yes, but they are brilliantly transferred from the tape to the stage. This occurs to such a degree that in some cases the live version surpasses the heart-wrenching power of the originals.

Such is the case with the minimalistic Samskeyti, a pseudo-neo-classical instrumental piece that was brilliant in its brevity to begin with. Here, it is beyond intimate, reaching levels of emotional tenderness untouched by a vast majority of modern music. The repetition of the focal piano line cascades idiosyncratic imagery over you, forcing you to lose yourself in the epic crescendo of strings and ambience.

As with all Sigur Rós albums, there is a fairly strong feeling of familiarity with the music. You may not have heard the songs before, but somehow you know where it's going. The tracks have a tendency to blur together without signaling it has shifted. It is not to say that the music is unmemorable; it isn't, but it lacks certain characteristics that create lasting impressions on a listener. The music may be remarkable, but after it's over you can't seem to recall why.

And herein lies the problem with Harvf/Heim. While the music is as magnificent as ever, vastly emotive in its delicate finesse, it never buries itself in the mind. As soon as the music is gone, you forget what which melodic highlights you thought were so moving and fascinating. With every grandiose disposition, with every echoing, spectral lyric, the music drifts towards space, but never truly settles on your mind.

The album may be a brilliant opus of modern music, but don't be surprised if you forget why.

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