Saturday, 3 November 2007

Sigur Ros

Heather Cairns goes all Icelandic on us with a review of the new Sigur Ros album.

The new offering from Iceland's Sigur Rós, Hvarf-Heim opens with the familiar and beautifully simple music we are used to hearing on television programmes and adverts. The music of this album was written to accompany a film which has been shot by the band in Iceland. It is astonishing that a film has not been made by the band before, considering the visual power of their live performances.

The music of Sigur Rós has always been both melancholy and inspiring. It is calm and lucid without being depressing or desperate. Many of Hvraf-Heim's songs are re-workings from the albums Von, Ágætis Byrjun,( ) and Takk. This does not mean that you shouldn't buy this album if you already own the bulk of Sigur Rós's previous work. Not only are there three newly released tracks, Salka, Hljómalind and Í Gær, but the originals have been stripped down, built up, tweaked and reincarnated.

The newly re-worked version of Starálfur begins with only a small strings section and a piano. Simple. Jónsi's voice enters the music so subtly that it is easy to confuse him with an obscure and newly invented musical instrument.

The title track of the band's 1999 album, Ágætis Byrjun (which translates as 'an alright start') is also treated to a more acoustic and simple sound. The piano is more powerful than the original version, which gives the song more of an uplifting edge without removing any of the atmospheric qualities. It must be noted that sometimes the music of Sigur Rós can give the listener a cold and distant feeling, but the album as a whole, particularly this song, gives the image of a group of musicians sitting in a room playing music just for the fun of it. The sound is much warmer but every bit as delicate.

Heysátan, originally the closing track from 2005's Takk, is also the closing track of this album. Bird noises and layers of instruments build the song up into a simple and very charming way to end yet another masterpiece. The passion in Jónsi's voice and the timing of this song give a feeling of triumph and achievement. The tone is similar to Kate Bush's album Aerial which revels and indulges in the roots of nature and the serenity which is rarely found in this world.

Í Gær begins like a child's lullaby. The music builds subtly to create a magical, mischievous and playful sound which is not unlike The Cakewalk by Claude Debussy. This child-like music is short lived. It is brashly and brilliantly interrupted by a crescendo of distorted guitars and open hi-hats; but still the lullaby continues. This is one of the greatest moments of the album; it is epic and apocalyptic, but extremely controlled and delicate.

Overall, the album is classic Sigur Rós with a twist. Vaka and Samskeyti do the ( ) album perfect justice without simply repeating and reproducing the music. How a band can play the same songs with only subtle differences, but still make the entire work an exciting and refreshing masterpiece is a mystery to me. Perhaps only a band as clever and crafty as Sigur Rós could pull it off. This is more than just 'an alright start'- it is stunning.

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