The Sound of Beautiful Discontent
2 May 2001: The Fillmore Auditorium San Francisco
Youth and isolation. These are the flour and water, the base ingredients for creative ingenuity. From youth comes the unbridled spirit, the pretension to think you know everything and the wide-eyed curiosity that announces how little you truly know. From isolation comes examination, believing there is nobody who is thinking the same thoughts as you and experimenting with the same ideas—it is simultaneous self-exploration and discovery, exuded as either an innate observer’s eye or, more often, as intense self-reflection.
Icelandic musical phenomena Sigur Rós are the epitome of youth and isolation. They’re young: at an average age of under 25, you wonder how these fresh-faced lads manage to invent such ethereal, seasoned soundscapes with seeming ease. They’re creatively and physically isolated: Iceland is possibly the remotest sub-tropical slice of modern civilization, a glacial Atlantis with its own language and conflicting environment of earthly heat and atmospheric cold, yet fewer citizens than Oakland, California. When your neighbors and surroundings are so pervasive, you can’t avoid turning inward for inspiration.
Other Icelandic musicians have garnered attention outside their homeland—The Sugarcubes and later Björk, as well as performance collective Gus Gus—by displaying originality not as a by-product but as the product. As the literal rather than proverbial island in the sea, musical movements of both North America and Europe are detached from Iceland, elevated before being dissected and fused with local influences and spit back out as an indelibly altered beast. They may be drawing inspiration from the major pop music movements of the time, but there’s something else there that pop alone cannot produce.
So it is with Sigur Rós. The group has been compared to atmospheric explorers such as the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, largely out of a lack of other comparison points. They’re tough to describe, made tougher by their insistence on singing in their native Icelandic rather than the international pop language of English. There’s also a rumor that Sigur Rós has invented its own inflective language, dubbed “Hopelandic”, which if true (band members have hinted that the language was just a name they gave to meaningless sounds) pushes the band further into indescribability.
Most everyone at Sigur Rós’ sold-out show at the Fillmore on May 2 understood that what was being communicated went beyond language.
By all accounts Sigur Rós is a democratic band, one that makes music together rather than expressing any one member’s creative vision. The mix of deliberate guitar (often played with a bow, producing a pensive wail of electric noise), organ, percussion and chamber strings converge like molecules in a vast, weightless space bouncing off each other like reverberating ripples in a pond just starting to darken under storm clouds. It’s a sound that may not come from nature, but certainly takes a cue from the natural, beautiful order of chaos.
Yet even with everyone contributing equally in concert, including a startlingly young string quartet that never got lost behind the wall of guitar noise, you can’t help but fix your eyes on lead singer Jon Por Birgisson—known as Jonsi. He isn’t much more than a smaller version of his bandmates—rail thin, short hair, T-shirt, jeans—yet his eyes are serious and sad. It’s not the sadness of loss, but of resignation. Whatever it is he’s feeling, he’s been feeling it for a while, and it has rendered him fragile and detached.
The resignation pours over into his vocals, an androgynous if not fully feminine quiver that glides over several octaves and intones at points with Billie Holiday’s gravelly self-awareness and at other points with a tuneful version of Kurt Cobain’s purgatory yowl—all in a language foreign to most ears. As he quietly repeated the mantra of “Svefn-G-Englar”—something that audibly approaches “it’s you” or even an artful sneeze being contemplated as if it’s a question and an answer—he abandoned his microphone and lifted his guitar to his face to chant into his pickup, creating a ghostly echo that bounced out of the speakers like it was being shouted from the far end of an empty steel silo. This spectacle was greeted with paralyzed euphoria; virtually no one cheered, but you could feel the goosebumps rise on the back of every neck in the house.
That these sounds deftly cover great aural expanses of warmth and chill in the same space reflects the Iceland in Sigur Rós. The band can blanket listeners in warm and even fiery tones that still maintain a sharp, cool edge, like the volcanoes and natural geysers that melt glaciers back on the island.
When traditional rimma (Medieval Icelandic folk rhymes) singer Steindor Anderson joined the group halfway through the set, Sigur Rós’ Icelandic roots were fully exposed. Anderson, every bit as morose as Jonsi, sang folk tales in a deep Norse growl that outdid the darkest interpretations of Schubert’s “Erlking”, yet the antique style merged perfectly with Sigur Rós’ layered modern backing. In the several-song collaboration, the seeds of youth paid deference to wisdom while the archaic showed reverence for the contemporary.
For most of the set, even in their sunnier moments, Sigur Rós never came unhinged. The peaks and valleys seemed more meditative and calculated than spontaneous. Yet at the end of the final encore, every musician burst into a cacophany of sound that washed over the Fillmore. They stopped the noise nearly as quickly as they had started it, throwing their instruments down and kicking the drums over as they left.
A few minutes passed, then Sigur Rós and their supporting players walked slowly back on-stage, joined hands and took a bow. From the audience came a roar that rose to the most deafening, exhilarated rush of gratitude this writer has ever heard in a small concert hall. Sigur Rós got its final release, and after nearly 90 minutes of absorbing these otherworldly creations with great restraint, the audience got it too.