I’d usually tell you within the first few lines, in fact. But I’m a bit confused as to how to start, because this particular album doesn’t so much have a name. I speak, of course, however obliquely, of the new Sigur Rós album. Most easily identified by a set of what resemble parentheses on the cover, the album does its best to preserve a certain air of minimalist mystery. It succeeds. None of the tracks are titled, there are no liner notes (the booklet itself is an eerily sparse layering of what looks like semi-opaque clusters of tree branches). The music of “( )” (as they’re calling it) belies the packaging perfectly. Haunting and heartwrenching, soft and sad- “( )” is perfection. Quiet, beauteous perfection.
I had my first encounter with Sigur Rós’ (currently comprised of vocalist and guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson, bassist George Holm and drummer Orri Pall Dyrason) patented form of melodic melancholy back in high school. I’d been singularly enamored of Radiohead for a few years already at that point, and it was the similarity of the essence of vocalist Birgisson and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke that initially drew me in. With soundscapes that laid themselves bare before me like frozen tundras or storm-swirled oceans (this enchanting group hails from Iceland, a piece of information that further reinforces and contextualizes the wintry visuals I associate with their sound), their Icelandic-released LP “Von” struck a chord within me that would resound for some time.
The year 1999 brought the release of their first full-length album (which wouldn’t find its way stateside until approximately a year later), “Ágætis Byrjun.” When director Cameron Crowe (known for, amongst other things, his golden ear-just recall “Almost Famous” if you need a refresher) chose the soaring “Svefn-G-Englar” off of the string-laden record to appear on his near-impeccable soundtrack for the film “Vanilla Sky” (a feature that unfortunately failed to live up to the superb caliber of its score and soundtrack), the heretofore relatively unknown group began to garner considerable attention.
The group shows no signs of wanting to stop the world’s jaws from hitting the floor with 2002’s “( ),” either. The record is eight tracks (with an average song length of six minutes) of what got this band noticed, 71 minutes and 48 seconds of what did and continues to make them great.
The opening track (my favorite of the record, incidentally) reels you in with deadly subtlety. The keyboards and strings progress delicately, then powerfully, culminating in an emotional exercise in vocal pitchshifting from Birgisson. Its eerie echoes and breathtaking climax is the stuff of pure otherworldliness-what you might find yourself clinging to on grey days when the sky closes in on you as you watch the clouds move Westward. For me, this is heaven, this is heartbreak, this is falling in love and Pennsylvania winters. Though I’m not sure what it could be for you, I am positive that if this doesn’t cause something deep inside of you to break and reassemble itself in the way that all of these marvelously intangible things can, then you might need to check your pulse.
Once done with step one, keep listening.
The second track, which opens with guitar work reminiscent of Shudder to Think’s masterful contributions to the “High Art” motion picture soundtrack (another visually ambitious film that owed more to its score than it did to its filmic substance), progresses in a near-inverse fashion of the first. It rises and falls in stunning waves and sonic footsteps, closing with softly resonating organ chords and a tiptoeing keyboard loop, the perfect soundtrack to accompany any listener on their moonlit miles, wherever they might be traveling.
Track three is similarly dream-like, with careful keyboard progressions reminiscent of the deeply affecting and oft-compared likes of the Dirty Three. At this point in the album, the listener will no doubt appreciate the near-seamless transition between the tracks (made easier, admittedly, by the fact that they are all quite similar-this album is not meant to be listened to in fragments; rather, it’s more akin to a concept album whose sounds bleed together and intertwine in the most vital ways) as we are taken into the near languid, captivating fourth track-a song which draws inevitable comparisons to the aforementioned “Svefn-G-Englar.”
However, this fourth track is notably more stunning and arguably more accessible than “Svefn-G-Englar” and, much like the rest of “( ),” will warrant several spins in order to accurately absorb all of the various sonic layers spread forth before you by Birgisson and Co. The lovely, lilting song comes to an abrupt end, leaving you hanging in the midst of veritable icicles in mid-air, left behind by the glacial textures of Birgisson’s voice. Though I can’t for the life of me understand what he’s saying (I don’t speak the language and Sigur Rós has requested that song translations not be published on the internet, as they would prefer to translate the songs themselves), this is the type of music that transcends language, reaching beyond such earthly barriers into a cavity in the mind and the soul that remains untouched by anything but the purest, most raw emotion. I’m sure the words (whatever they may be) are beautiful, they must be, cannot be anything less.
The latter half of the album contains the longer songs-all of which are well over eight minutes long each (the longest one being 13 minutes long). These tracks, compiled from both recent studio recordings and earlier live takes from their 2001 U.S. tour, are particularly noisy when compared to the rest of the album. I’ve found that these need the most time to digest-while the band’s transition from the first half to the second half of the record is sensical and clearly well-thought as always, there is some difficulty to be experienced in the Sonic Youth-like presence of clanging percussion and guitars (“clanging,” mind you, is a rather relative term-don’t misinterpret me, this is still quieter than anything Thurston Moore could ever offer, even if you put him in a padded room). The conclusion is just as effective as the introduction, bringing us full circle and closing the parentheses. Luckily for you, as I’ve said before, there’s an inexhaustible repeat button to match the inexhaustible interest you’re sure to take in this masterwork.
After what is probably my 20th listen in about the span of a week or so, I’m not sure if anything I can say in regards to this album will make any sense beyond my own personal interpretations. That in itself is a particularly grand testament both the record as well as the group’s ability to foster a space wherein one can cloister themselves with their thoughts, their desires, their sadness, their own oceans of infinity and tumult. “( )” is exhausting and I mean that in the most complementary of ways. Any album that gives way to this much introspection must be the product of equally thorough planning just as much as it is the culled experience of four beautiful souls striving to make the music that they (and, by extension, we) live their lives by, and that can never, ever be anything less than completely glorious.