Steamrolled by Beauty
If you were to look through the majority of reviews written about Sigur Rós, a noticeable pattern of adjectives begins to emerge. As my PopMatters colleague humorously pointed out earlier this year, “glacial” is one word you’re likely to find in every other review, if not every one. Some others might be “cinematic”, “expansive”, “lush”, or any like synonym. In my reading, the one I’ve encountered the most is the simplest, but no doubt the most accurate: “beautiful”. Ever since this Icelandic four-piece blew the world away with the international release of Ágætis byrjun at the start of the new millennium, it’s the one thing they’ve never stopped being. They have matured over the course of their six studio outings, at times trading in their widescreen sonic landscapes for straightforward, almost rockish songwriting, but they’ve never ceased making deeply beautiful music. A concise track like “Hoppípolla” still retains the stunning power of their longer, more formless compositions. That’s but one of many reasons why they’ve continued to be a driving force in modern music; though “beautiful” has been used to describe many records in different genres, no one does beauty quite like Sigur Rós. It’s unmistakable, unparalleled, and unmatched. Given the group’s proficiency, they’ve managed to keep this beauty feeling fresh and new with every release, without merely recycling what made their previous albums so strong. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust is a markedly different piece of music than Takk…, just as the latter deviated significantly from ().
However, with their sixth studio recording, Valtari (“Steamroller”), Sigur Rós may have pushed the boundary of their beauty to its final resting point. In contrast to the song-centric material on their prior two LPs, Valtari is largely non-linear and album-oriented; this is best listened to in one thorough sitting, rather than piece-by piece. It’s easily the most cinematic thing they’ve done since their 2002 masterpiece () (or, “The Brackets Album”), and for those who prefer their earlier stuff this is definitely a solid return to form. Dramatic piano chords, washes of soft guitar tones, and occasional bursts of climactic drumming give this a power that Sigur Rós have come to master. Yet for all of Valtari‘s bluster, it seems like the band have now reached a point where their beauty may have reached its limits.
Now, to be clear: Valtari isn’t merely a reiteration of their older material. There are actually a few cuts here that could end up being career classics, namely the gorgeous, minimalistic closer “Fjögur Píanó”, where several sparse piano lines interweave with each other to create an enchanting finale. Also noteworthy is the incorporation of choral effects on songs like “Êg Anda” and “Dauðalogn”, which adds a grandeur to the already grand music. Moreover, if one is to take the commonly held belief about post-rock, that it often sounds like “music for an imaginary film”, then this is without a doubt the closest thing I’ve imagined to a Sigur Rós film score. The overarching musical motifs and key signatures resonate throughout, and are very captivating. Suffice it to say, this is a very good album; in a particular mood I might even say it’s a great or excellent one, but it’s hard for these musicians to top the masterpieces they put out early on. My first encounter with () is what I will always remember the most about Sigur Rós, and it’s hard for me to imagine the band crafting something richer or more unique than that.
But for all of Valtari‘s strengths, what is significant about it is not how good it is, but rather how it leaves you wondering how Sigur Rós could possibly expand from here. Beautiful though the record may be, it’s not fundamentally different than any of the others preceding it. As mentioned earlier, its closest sonic brethren is (); while Valtari differs in that it lacks the light/dark contrast, in terms of song structure it’s near identical, though in song length it’s more concise. So while this may be an engaging listen, it’s hard to rid of the ghost of the group’s better music out of your head.
For that same reason, however, Valtari is an important release in Sigur Rós’ history. This could be the breaking point for the continued refining of the band’s key formula: do they continue to make pretty dream-pop landscapes for the rest of their career? Do they try to distill it into shorter lengths, maybe even try to write more pop songs? Though many will squabble over which album is Sigur Rós’ best work, there’s a clear continuity in songwriting excellence that appears on each LP, and if that’s any indication then there shouldn’t be much to worry about in terms of maturation. But another possibility to entertain is that given how successful this nonlinear, post-rock format has been, Valtari could be the beginning of a career rut. At the moment, I think we could just be content with this, you guessed it, beautiful piece of music these Icelandic songwriters have graced us without getting too caught up in the future, as difficult as that may be. A masterpiece it isn’t, but Valtari is undeniably significant, as this could be the very moment where Sigur Rós have hit the ceiling of their own beauty.