Rating: 3.25/5If I could choose one band to listen to on my deathbed, that band would be Sigur Rós. Capable of elegy that’s so post-rock it’s almost otherworldly, Sigur Rós’ meditative soundscapes are the closest thing I know to an out of body experience. Since their 1999 breakthrough and masterpiece Ágætis byrjun, this Icelandic foursome has earned every superlative thrown their way for crafting celestial beauty through crescendos and blissful release. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s haunting falsetto (often used to express the inexpressible through the band’s invented and phonetically-pleasing Hopelandic language) could put angels to shame.
Cloaked in mystery during their early years, Sigur Rós have since become overexposed, lending their songs to film and television, and they were also the focus of documentary Heima. Over the years, their albums began to grow more fanciful than ethereal, and after 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (which cheekily translates to “With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly”), the band went on indefinite hiatus. Birgisson deviated further from the band’s aesthetic with a pair of solo releases in the interim, and while a DVD and corresponding live album may have briefly staved off their fans’ hunger pangs, it did little to mask the fact that Sigur Rós was on hold.
With the much-anticipated release of their sixth album Valtari (translation: “Steamroller”), Sigur Rós will likely be heralded for returning to form, for reemerging into the spectral world from whence they came. As Birgisson said, “The last two albums are…too joyous, too festive.” Valtari, on the other hand, will not be confused for either of those adjectives. But the pendulum has swung so far back in the other direction that the euphoric climaxes of Ágætis byrjun and other early era albums are replaced with a primordial stillness. The band’s always fragile sound is positively brittle here, and while the album’s first half manages to achieve a glacially-paced transcendence, the second half simply evaporates.
The nearly hour-long Valtari is composed of eight sprawling tracks, only the first two of which are brand spanking new. The remainder were culled from the band’s aborted attempt at a 2010 release, a composition for a film or from whatever they had lying around their studio (which I like to imagine is as icily palatial as the Fortress of Solitude). Opening track “Èg Anda” drifts into existence over the course of a couple minutes, its wistful chamber vocals giving way to shimmering strings, Birgisson’s falsetto vocals and the cry of his trademark electric guitar strum with a violin bow. The track dissolves into fuzzy dissonance near its end, one that actually calls to mind the score of a David Lynch film. Lead single “Ekki Múkk” continues the tender vocals, and delicate strings hold the instrumentals together. A persistent crackle and hiss patters like raindrops throughout, adding greater dimension to this minimalist track, and the soft piano shines. The only crescendo in the entire album takes place on Varúð (also the only track with notable percussion), as Birgisson’s voice ascends and showers stardust from on high. It’s the most beautiful song I’ve heard in recent memory, but this lone climax isn’t enough for a fix.
Just when it’s beginning to feel like the old (albeit even more stripped down) Sigur Rós, the wheels fall off. “Rembihnútur” and “Dauðalogn” are both mournful and ambient and pretty, but they break no new ground and are ultimately forgettable. The last three tracks peter out into a whimper. Without Birgisson’s vocal silk, these instrumental tracks are mostly composed of tinkering with chimes and other toys, and closer “Fjögur Pianó” is essentially aimless key plunking.
Devotees have waited four years for this album, and by overcompensating for their more commercial shifts of late, Sigur Rós offers almost no payoff for the tremendous patience they require from the listener. I once briefly drifted off to sleep at one of the band’s concerts, the atmosphere was so relaxing and serene. Unfortunately, Valtari may induce sleepiness for less transcendent reasons. The band has illustrated how difficult it can be to live up to one’s own mystique.