Sigur Ros + Amina

by Terry Sawyer

10 March 2006

Always the asshole, never the acolyte...

PopMatters Film and TV Features Editor

Sigur Ros + Amina

26 Feb 2006: Bass Concert Hall — Austin, TX

Sigur Ros clearly wanted to make a grand Austin entrance. By choosing to play the Bass Concert Hall on a Sunday evening - a place that would normally house a tuxedo-clad symphony or an opera cast—the band was making a statement that this would be a night of high art. For the most part, I think this choice served their transfixing aims well, though the formality of such a setting can undercut the grandiosity - there’s no way to make the movement and the fifty or so people whose knees you have to chafe to get to the pisser seem highbrow. But the acoustics of the conch shell stage couldn’t have been more embracing and since the optimum choice for a Sigur Ros venue—a bunch of canopy beds covered in quilts lined up on the beach at sunset—isn’t exactly practical, I’ll take what I can get.

What I liked most about opener Amina was their visible enjoyment and homey stage presence. A quartet of women playing laptops, bells, stringed instruments, and assorted percussion toys, they added a much-needed current of cheekiness to their surroundings. They even managed to pull off some sort of dance track as a closer, albeit one where the beat tripped into itself like a centipede flying haphazardly into a headstand.

Sigur Ros, for all their galactic comfort, seem dour emissaries of beauty. I can understand why they might want to construct a show where their personalities are obscured by the sound; consequently the songs aren’t announced and the pauses between them merely shift changes. But Amina managed, with their violins, xylophones and harps, to create just as much of a crisp, clean halo of pure rhythm. Both bands work with the entrancing architecture of cycles, beginning slowly and adding filigree in evenly-paced layers until the songs seem to explode.

For Amina, the effect was more modest, especially without the film component employed by Sigur Ros. But, it was nearly as intense. Granted, Amina never swallow you whole, but their metronomic ticks and clicks, the sawing ribbons of violin and mosquito-sized pats of tintinnabulation, leave a sort of crystallized reminder of movement in the air. They make elegant, knotted repetition to Sigur Ros’ watery unleashing. This is not criticism of Sigur Ros as much as it is an addendum to their theory of presentation. I know they’re hot, hot guys and their carefully calibrated mood could easily get eroded in a sea of yearning Teen Beat screams, but levity and gorgeousness are not always mutually repellant - a fact demonstrated by the deft and plucky display of their collaborators.

Sigur Ros arrived almost extraterrestrially. They performed the first song behind an effacing screen with lights angled to produce multiple mis-matched versions of their shadows. The effect was a swirling, tentacled swim of limbs that made the actual bodies seem like the pinprick centers of some windswept willow flower. Sigur Ros returned to this visual tactic in varying forms throughout the evening with projected images that began as recognizable objects only to morph into some loose configuration of line and shade and then disappear altogether into another object. It’s tempting to view this as yet one more prong in their project to create an aesthetic experience so elusive and gigantic that your emotional reaction obliterates your desire to press the music into analytical forms. Naming an album with empty parentheses could be their stubborn refusal to give the listener colanders of interpretation. Of course, this approach comes with all kinds of risks that, for the most part, the band avoids.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, at times, the epic key wore me thin, causing my brain to skim their surface rather than stay in crushing depths for the duration. These moments were few and fleeting though. I would always get pulled back in despite my bratty tendency to ask “and now what?”

This is transcendental meditation for a generation that wants engulfing beauty without any of the attendant hippy baggage. The band’s singer segues in and out of Icelandic, their own made-up language (Hopelandic), and, if I’m not mistaken, even some English (anyone fluent in any of the above have long since given up trying to anchor the band’s sounds in specific meaning). Lead singer Jon Thor Birgisson likes to break emotion through the shoddy containment of language, frequently climaxing in a primal falsetto howl just as the rest of the band rises to pick up where he fades off.

Several times during the show, I remembered my only analogous concert experience: seeing Spiritualized in my freshman year of college. Both bands push the listener toward the same quasi-mystical state of ecstatic erasure, though Spiritualized ultimately seems haunted by a depressing undercurrent of junkie Christianity and the emaciated specter of a singer doing so many drugs that he looks like a piece of fruit left out too long on the counter.

What fascinates me most about seeing a band like Sigur Ros is wondering what they want me, and others in the audience who were moved to speechlessness, to take away. It’s the utopian in me that believes that artistic experiences of this depth make us better people, that they make us want to honor the experience in our day-to-day lives, threading beauty into some kind of nurturing ethic. But the cynic in me knows that it’s possible to relish every note and still walk away a mass-murderer. Expecting a “message” might just be one of the unfortunate defaults my mind operates under, because surely doing something so forced as planning out what to say or having some kind of agenda would taint what Sigur Ros do with pedantry.

For the rest of the night, Sigur Ros exhaled huge sonic wombs onto the stage, building every single song to its bursting point and, several times, interjecting the kinds of quaking guitar drones that could stun Thurston Moore. I was a casual admirer before: always an asshole, never an acolyte is my motto. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but develop the slightest of emotional attachments to the band, re-playing moments of engulfment and struggling to adequately capture them in suggestion, inference and reaction. As I left, I consciously checked out people’s faces. You could read the intensity of the show on their sand-blasted slates.

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