Music

Sigur Rós: Valtari

Photo: Lilja Birgisdottir

With Valtari, these Icelanders may have pushed their dream-pop/post-rock formula to its final point. Where can Sigur Rós go after pushing the very limits of beautiful?


Sigur Rós

Valtari

Label: XL
US Release Date: 2012-05-29
UK Release Date: 2012-05-28
Artist Site
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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