Ever since they captivated the world with Ágætis byrjun in 2000, it seems that Iceland natives Sigur Rós have never given up on being beautiful. Over the course of five studio recordings, the band’s signature ambient post-rock has never faltered in its breathtaking beauty. In a way, it speaks much to the country the band hails from. What is likely the implicit point of the 2007 tour documentary Heima, with its panoramic, mesmerizing vistas of Iceland, is that the beauty of Sigur Rós’ music is inseparable from its origins. The sound of the Icelandic hills was, and still is, alive with the sound of Sigur Rós. The lush green hills depicted in Heima and the entire output of the band over the past decade are equally beautiful, though for reasons not always the same. The aesthetic quality of their music is highly organic, though the band’s instrumental lineup is mostly electronic.
To see Sigur Rós live, then, must be quite an experience. The band have never ceased to amaze in the richness of their material in all of their studio recordings of the past decade, but live, these songs no doubt turn into something else entirely. The stripped-down, mostly acoustic version of “Ágætis byrjun” released on both Heima and Hvarf/Heim, took the studio’s version’s ambient bent and gave it a pastoral, folk feel. Just as the band could tone a track down, however, it seems logical that they could take an already brilliant studio track and expand it into something greater live, something that magnifies the brilliant intensity of their sound. Some of the best moments on past Sigur Rós outings are those moments where a song bursts into a joyous cacophony; “Milano”, from Takk…, is a prime example. Certainly, these moments of climax must be quite brilliant when seen live.
This is where the core problem with Inni manifests itself.
Some words of praise first: Inni (meaning “inside”), filmed live in London, is still a testament to just how beautiful Sigur Rós’ music is. There are moments throughout the performance that take already good live tracks and make them even more beautiful than they initially were. The originally sparse “All Alright”, the track from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust sung in English, becomes something truly magical in its live incarnation: though still sparse (lead singer Jónsi Birgisson’s voice and a piano are the sole instruments), the song is an even more fragile beauty live. The song lacks the grandeur of many of the songs on the rest of the setlist, but it’s a piece so powerful that it sounds out easily among the remainder of the tracks.
The powerful, climactic moments are also strong in many of the songs. The peak moment of “Glósóli” is particularly enthralling, as is the one on “Saeglópur”. (Inni does broadly take from all of the band’s LPs, but Takk… by far gets the best representation.) “Inní mér syngur vitleysing”, by far the happiest moment on the record, is a very welcome break from the general mood, which is dominated by softer, ambient moments swelling into imposing apexes. Sigur Rós have a highly unique sound, but their affinity for crescendos is textbook post-rock, and Inni is a fine demonstration of that musical device.
To sum up in a few words, Sigur Rós are still as good as they’ve been. The shortcoming of Inni is not the skill of the band. Instead, it comes from the very sound that the band have been producing over the past decade. This also takes into account the way live albums necessarily are, but this nonetheless cripples the beauty of Sigur Rós to be fully expressed on this album.
Press releases for Inni market it as the best way to experience Sigur Rós live without actually being present at the concert. If that is the case, then it is quite clear that one ought to just pay the money to see the band live and experience it there. Inni, though still indicative of the band’s talent and gorgeous sonic, feels oddly restrained. At times, the crescendos don’t quite take off in the manner they do in the album, or in the fashion that they most likely did in the live setting. On “Ny batterí”, for instance, when the song picks up, it doesn’t quite have the punch that it did in its initial recording. The live experience is generally supposed to magnify strong points such as that one, but here it fizzles. The biggest example of this is “Hoppípolla”, which was the standout track of Takk…. The song built into a glorious, majestic finale, accompanied by a string and horn section. For the live version, the band didn’t have those two instrument sections, and for understandable reasons—they are neither cheap nor easy to lug around on tour. However, given how integral they were to the studio recording’s success, this live version sounds incomplete. These moments add up to a listening experience that begs for something greater. The band is in top form here, but somewhere in between the performance and the recording some of the magic was lost. No recording can capture all of the various elements that contribute to a live performance, but here it sounds as if there’s something integral that’s missing.
Admittedly, not everyone buying a live CD is looking for the full live experience. Few probably expect such a thing out of a live recording, and with good reasoning: it can’t be done. Even the best live album will never compare to actually being present at that performance. Inni, even though it has plenty of strong moments, falls prey to this, and it is truly is unfortunate. It’s precisely because of how good Sigur Rós is live that the album cannot match up. Instead of presenting a definitive statement of what the band is like live, the album teases with something the listener might not have experienced. This is a decent snapshot of a great band doing what they do best, but instead of providing a three-dimensional, in-depth picture, it’s a two-dimensional one that only hints at the actual greatness the band achieves.