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Why does Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós' latest album have the unpronounceable title ( )? Nearly every review of the album concentrates on the "pretentious" quality of releasing an untitled album with eight untitled songs on it. Further, the album has no real liner notes; they are made of tracing paper and are printed with barely perceptible photos of tree branches. The band's pre-album press release stated "listeners will be invited to write or illustrate their own interpretations of Birgisson's 'Hopelandish' vocals and post them on the site. The idea is that the most oft-used words and phrases will then be recognised by a computer program on the site and 'become' the lyrics." That's another thing: Sigur Rós has a lead singer, Jon (Jonsi) þor (Thor) Birgisson, but no lyrics. On the band's previous album, Ágætis Byrjun, he sang mostly in Icelandic, but on ( ) he sings in an invented language called "Hopelandic" (vonlenska). So—are Sigur Rós pretentious? I prefer not to think so. Their music is so powerful and genre-defying that pretension seems not to apply. They really are good enough to do whatever they want.
The title ( ) seems to refer to the album's halved structure: four songs, a thirty-second silence, four more songs. The album's two halves are different both musically and thematically; though melancholy is an integral part of all of the band's music, the first four songs are more hopeful, optimistic-sounding. The second half, though no less beautiful, is sadder, rawer, more anguished. Call ( ) "Sigur Rós," or "the new album," or just "untitled"—I'm thinking of calling it "Halves".
Jonsi's Hopelandic vocals sound much like the Icelandic on Ágætis Byrjun—but if ( ) can be faulted musically, it is because of this vocal style. Throughout much the album, Jonsi sings only variations of five or six Hopelandic syllables: "Yo xi lo, no fi lo." It makes the idea of the fan penning interpretations of the lyrics irrelevant, and seems like a bit of a cop-out. The repetition of a central vocal motif gives the album a bit of a coherence, however, but it's like using just one vocal sample for an entire techno album.
It's not much of a loss that the tracks are untitled—who can remember which track off of Ágætis Byrjun is which, anyway?—but it's still a puzzling artistic choice. Sigur Rós wants each listener to bring individual emotions to the pieces—but when Sigur Rós toured these songs before the albums release, they all had titles: "Vaka," "Fyrsta," "Samskeyti," "Njósnavélin," "Alafoss," "E-bow," and "Popp."
Sigur Rós is Jon (Jonsi) þor (Thor) Birgisson (vocals, guitar), Georg Holm (bass), Kjartan Sveinsson (keyboard, guitar) and Orri Páll Dýrason (drums). ( ) also features Sigur Rós' live string section, "amina." ( ) was recorded at Alafoss, the band's private "converted swimming pool studio outside of Reykjavik," between January and March of 2002.
UPDATE: I got to see Sigur Rós live on November 25, 2002. The experience was utterly incredible. I have daylogged about it here.
excuse me whilst i wax poetic...
1 Synthesized organs open, joined by piano and a ghostlike wavering wind, whistling. The melody is melancholy hope and persistence. Hopelandic lyrics? "You sighed alone, the fire, you saw the lie."
2 Opens with the ominous sound of a tortured and dying didgeridoo. The first snap of percussion on the record bears down on your consciousness, and ripples of warmth radiate from the first delicately plucked guitar notes. "Do you sigh? You saw the lone fire, you ride alone, you ride silent." Images in slow motion, beautiful and terrible: a shot bird spiraling down, trailing feathers. Trees waving in a breeze or bending in a hurricane, in black silhouette against a burning orange sunset. A green insect opening its wings and taking flight, its landing-pad leaf recoiling. A horse galloping across purple icefields into a grey horizon, steaming.
3 A circulating current of piano washes through a warm bath of soft and distant pulses of sound, swelling, receding like a tide--pulled to and fro by the moon, crisp, rising against the sky, deepening from purple to sable-black. Falling leaves, never touching the ground, hovering. Snowflakes swirling and drifting. The circulation of warm blood, the rhythms of life.
4 Sepulchral drumbeats, soft but piercing guitar. Hymnal organs. A constant background of echoing, sizzling guitars. Vocals are close, immediate. A harpsichord music-box tinkle. The sound of innocence and promise. This is the sound you feel during those moments of life-altering joy, during those moments of connection.
... SILENCE ...
5 Organ. Slow; thick and spare in the same instant. Mournful, dirge-like. Drumbeats once every eternity. Jonsi's hopelandic syllables spell out "sorrow." Building, building to the first ecstatically anguished climax of the record.
6 A primal heartbeat. Lonesome pining. A slow, growling bubble of volume struggles up, subsides. Echoing aftershocks--or perhaps foreshadowings--slice through to the heart, and build, slashing open a gorgeous, peircing piano melody. Falling icicles impale the amps, shattering in slow motion.
7 (We cannot go on.) Jonsi's usually pure voice takes on a feeling of frayedness, rattling and bursting almost into a cry of anger, lifted up on a short-lived pillar of molten lightning. Subsiding, simmering, shimmering, rising again. Resonating, reverberating off of cave walls, wrapping around stalagmites and stalactites, wrinkling the crystal-smooth surface of a dark carvernous sea. The machinery of the planets crashing as the burning cosmos aligns in the Arctic sky.
8 It must break. It must break! Pounding, pulsing, strings building, bass driving, building, building, building, it must break, building, building, it must break, building, building, building, it must break, building, building--a wave of aggressive drums, searingly cold guitars, the torrent is released.
1. 6:38 (Vaka)
2. 7:33 (Fyrsta / First)
3. 6:33 (Samskeyti / Attachment)
4. 7:32 (Njósnavélin / The Nothing Song / Spy Machine)
5. 9:27 (Alafoss)
6. 8:48 (E-bow)
7. 12:59 (Dauþalagiþ / The Death Song)
8. 11:45 (Popplagiþ / Popp / The Pop Song)
updated nov 06, 2002