How do you market an album of slow, atmospheric tracks to a world hopped up on the internet with an ADD infected finger-trigger?
You produce a video with Shia LeBeouf’s wang.
This might be an illustrious introduction to Sigur Rós for some people, but chances are you’ve already heard them without knowing it. Vanilla Sky utilised Svefn-g-englar to help wring emotion from a rock Tom Cruise. Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic somehow managed to add more whimsy by getting underwater puppets to dance to Staralfur. The BBC (and presumably every other channel offering nature documentaries) used Hoppipolla whenever they could, pairing it with slow motion diving birds or seal carcasses being ripped apart by killer whales.
The climax of The Life Aquatic. Spoilers and suchforth can be expected.
After that diversion to commercial pastures, let’s head back to the little thing that dragged you to read this article. The Shia Schlongtm.
I mean, the music.
Over the course of their last few albums they have been slowly infusing their ethereal, near glacial music with an intense poppy and rhythmic sensibility, building to a climax with Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust and the day-glo joy of lead singer Jonsi’s solo album. This album is instead a big throw back to their earlier work such as ().
This impossible to pronounce album coupled intense almost string-like soaring guitar lines with a partially made up language. It hits home really well because of its thematic unity, tracks seemingly knit together by a single phrase sung in a variety of ways. What sounds mournful and lost on Vaka can sound triumphant on Njósnavélin.
Valtari doesn’t seem to have this feeling of a common theme or identity other than everything sort of sounds the same. Homogeneous would be a word to describe it. It’s utterly beautiful to listen to for the most part, but doesn’t take you on a journey through different terrain like () does. It’s very subtle and at times it feels like the melodies have been buried under an avalanche of reverb and post-production. When it peeks out above the deadening snow you get these wonderful shafts of light and melody such as the latter half of Rembihnútur. Clicks, whirs and chimes create a delightful organic bed for Jonsi to emote over. Similarly, when the cavernous atmosphere is dropped on Varðeldur, we are left with a glittering piano piece that will have you reaching for the ‘repeat’ button.
It seems bizarre to criticise the album for its reliance on the very things that heralded their ascendance to the world from that alien planet known as Iceland, but that appears to the point I have reached. It doesn’t touch me in the same way that their previous albums have. There are less footholds to grab, so you just end up sliding down an icy wall, never reaching that awesome peak that you imagine is just above you. There appear to be less peaks and troughs (and so dynamics) in the album, but this is not down to the Loudness War or whatever you want to call the recent upwards trend of compressing the ever loving hell out your tracks.
Instead, the album is content to push on with a similar tone throughout, washing over you with shimmering dunes of guitar. The aforementioned Fjögur Píanó is a truly beautiful piece and a real stand out, (with or without the slightly bizarre music video) but much of the rest of the album leaves me slightly cold.
It could be that it will grow on me – I have only had it two weeks after all. But when I scroll down to Sigur Rós to play play, there isn’t a whole lot of pull me in the direction of Valtari above the almost Sun-like gravitational yank from an album like Ágætis Byrjun, an album I have listened to an almost pornographic amount of times. Hiring Shia LeBeouf may have been a push towards gaining new fans, but the album itself may push them away.
If I were to suggest an album for a Sigur Rós virgin to tackle, I would probably suggest the fantastic Takk, from 2005. It feels like the perfect bridging point between the slow crescendos of Ágætis Byrjun and the almost tribal insistance of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust.
Valtari is not a terrible album – far from it. It just feels like the band is coasting, on both the swathes of bowed guitars and their past success. They haven’t pushed themselves here, and it doesn’t feel as rich and layered as even smaller EP’s such as Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do, which I feel captures such a wide variety of emotions in three short ambient tracks. What I am starting to wonder from all this is whether I’d been able to sit through the terrible Transformers 2 a little easier had a little Sigur Rós accompanied Shia LeBeouf running around futilely shouting “No no no no no no no.” The answer of course, is no. Nothing could make that film bearable, not even one of the most beautiful bands in the world.