The iconic Icelandic band Sigur Rós have delved into soundtrack work before. They’ve supplied music for the documentaries Hlemmur and Heim as well as the nonfiction film Angels of the Universe. They’ve also seized the opportunity to meld visual and sonic elements together in a live setting, putting a fine point on the band’s ability to summon a “cinematic” sound. Circe is the result of Georg Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason of Sigur Rós teaming up with Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Hólm’s younger brother Kjartan Dagur Hólm to create a soundtrack for The Show of Shows. It behaves much like the other scoring jobs these musicians have conjured: atmospheric, thinly-defined, dense, and engaging enough to stand on its own, movie or no movie. Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson may not be involved, but Circe really does play out like an all-instrumental Sigur Rós experiment where high theatrics take the place of the vocals. In other words, it’s pretty far out.
If you spring for the vinyl edition of Circe, it comes in four fat sides. The soundtrack itself is divided into 14 tracks, but it sounds more like blobs of sound easily segueing into another over the course of 71-plus minutes. There are elements to differentiate numerous cues but they all seem to hang in equal balance, forfeiting flashy performances in service to the score. The one track that feels like more of a showcase than any others is “The Crown of Creation”, an eight-minute passage that gives Orri Páll Dýrason a chance to insistently pound his kit in the background as if he were getting paid by the stroke. But by and large, Circe‘s sound occupies a special space between musical genres. It shows shades of ambient and post-rock but mostly dishes up a mixture that can be an aggressive form of the former and a spaced-out version of the latter. As it plays, you may find your mind wandering from mental image to mental image rather than focusing in on one particular instrument or one musician’s performance.
Circe begins with what could be an announcement, a number named “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls” — though it’s hardly just a bugle call. Instead, it’s a swelling trip-hop stage setter that lasts eight minutes. It’s with “Lila” where Circe begins to both pick up steam and show the breadth of abilities on display when Hólm, Hólm, Dýrason, and Hilmarsson all work together. “Lila” is where brisk tempos meet — but never overtake — the post-rock/electronica hybrid. At one point the rhythm track slows down, signaling the track’s upcoming conclusion. Except, that never happens. Another moment worthy of focus is “TKO”, a moment which sounds like Circe was working towards. On this weightless track, the clouds part and the sun beams down. To what end? Who cares, this stuff sounds like it was beamed down from high above.
As far as instrumental rock music goes, Circe may not be the most startlingly original work out there. There are traces of what’s come before weaved all over the place, but it’s difficult to make that complaint when the thing is playing at full volume and filling your head with sounds that are both aggressive and soft and which seem to largely belong to no era. As with Inni, the visual component may give you the full picture. But without the visuals, it’s still an album with a built-in ripple effect.