[ATTENDED: October 5, 2016] Sigur Rós
I saw Sigur Rós play live fifteen years ago. It was their first world tour and one of their first shows in the U.S. And it was magical. It is one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever seen. For some reason I’ve never looked into seeing them again. Until this time. Some six tours later, Sigur Rós decided to strip down from a multi-piece band with orchestra (when I saw them they had some extra players but not a full orchestra) to just a trio: jón þór birgisson (jonsi), georg holm, and orri páll dýrason.
I never feared that the three of them wouldn’t be able to recreate the beautiful sounds, but it wasn’t until they were playing that I realized that all of that music–that expansive, enveloping sound, was coming from just those three guys–and I have no idea how they did it.
For the most part, Jonsi was on vocals and (violin bowed) guitar, Georg was on bass (and more) and Orri was on drums and keyboards. But they shifted around, with each of them playing other things during the show.
The show was perfectly orchestrated with a spectacular light show. It was arranged into two acts with a 15 minute intermission. I have often complained about bands who don’t change their set list from night to night but there is no way they could change this–the precision of everything, the complexity of the lights and music–this was more of a stage show than a concert.
Now I love Sigur Rós, but I really don’t know any of the names of their songs (most are in Icelandic anyhow). So even when I saw the set list it was pretty meaningless to me. And, it’s fair to say that their songs are pretty similar (not a criticism, they have a unique sound and it is theirs alone). But I was happy to know which albums they would be playing the most songs from. So I got out () and made sure to listen a few times since they were playing 5 songs from it.
Both sets opened with a new song–slow building songs that were like a welcoming invitation to the show.
And as with last time, as soon as the band started playing and Jonsi started singing, I was rapt–Totally caught up in the music which sounded amazing in Radio City Music Hall. It feels like they have speakers all over the room, their sound and which simply envelops the audience. I usually like to take some pictures of exciting moments of shows but I didn’t even touch my phone during the show–I was absorbed from the first notes.
They played a slow song from the album Valtari and then three intense songs from (). It was during “E-bow” that the drumming really grew loud. And it’s worth talking about the loudness of this show. I tend to think of Sigur Rós as being kind of dreaming and ethereal, and they certainly are, but they have been ramping up their percussion in the last few years. And this was one of the loudest shows I’ve ever been to. But, and this is the important part, it never sounded bad loud–it never got fuzzy or piercingly unpleasant, it never felt broken up, or like their system couldn’t handle it. It was just really loud. You could feel it all through your body–more enveloping.
Orri’s drum kit was on the right side of the stage facing the center and you could watch him hit things incredibly hard. George was on the left (mostly) playing bass and Jonsi stood center stage wielding that bow across his guitar strings. I’ve mentioned many times that I love seeing a guitarist use a bow. But Jonsi uses the bow almost exclusively. And he does things with his guitar that are unfathomable, otherworldly and mind bending. He gets squeaks and feedbacks, slow drags that produce rumblings and scratches and sounds that just don’t come from a guitar. And there he was calmly bowing and singing.
And yes, his voice. Otherworldly is really the only word to describe it. His voice soars higher than anyone else I’ve ever heard. And he sings effortlessly live. Those notes, those syllables (whether he is singing in Icelandic or nonsense) soar and swirl and find their way right inside of you.
The lighting for set one was a bit more mellow than in Set 2. There were screens behind the band with videos projected onto them from behind. Which means that the videos were also projected on the walls of the venue (huge and distorted). This also sucked us into the whole experience because the stage seemed to reach out to us. And there were lights that did all kinds of interesting things–projecting shapes or tracing patterns, flashing bright at drum hits and filling the room with colors.
There were some really loud drum moments and some intense build ups, but Set 1 was definitely the quieter of the two. And the way it ends with some drones and a simple keyboard melody from the gorgeous “Smáskifa” punctuated with a beam of light that looked like a bird flying around the stage was utterly mesmerizing.
When it was time for intermission, we raced to the restroom and debriefed. Sarah knows Sigur Rós just from me playing them but doesn’t know any individual songs, but she said she was blown away by the whole experience too.
Set 2 changed things up. There were screens lowered in front of the stage and the band was invisible as they played the new song “Óveður.” I wasn’t even sure if they were playing it or if it was a recording. And then some of the smoke cleared and you could see the three of them standing very closely together in the middle of the stage. As more smoke cleared we could see more of them–heads and torsos that seemed to hover in the middle of the stage as they played a few older songs from their breakthrough record. For one song the lights formed open and closed brackets that seemed to keep the guys together almost like a projection screen.
The visuals for this set were much bigger–more visually stunning, with a swirling light contraption that looked like a giant spacecraft landing or taking off–and we’re not sure if it was all projection or actual lights. There was a kind of implosion slowly receding and series of lights building abstract structures while bright red banks of light erupted behind them.
When the drums burst forth on “Ný Batterí,” the place exploded with lights and intensity. It was incredible. Things settled down with the lovely “Vaka,” a mellow piece from () that segued into the amazing “Festival.” “Festival” is a dynamic piece because the beginning is a little dark and unsettling–I feel like it is designed to make you feel uncomfortable. And then Jonsi held a note. I don’t know how long he held it but it was inhuman how long he held it–we weren’t sure if it was looping, but it clearly was not (there’s videos online of him holding it for 45 seconds) and then the song lifts and turns into an almost cinematic triumphant climax, giving you the feeling that you’ve been through a dark moment and have just emerged victorious.
The show could have easily ended there–a triumphant conclusion and very satisfying ending.
But they had more to give–and much more loud to give.
The returned from that with “Kveikur” and Jonsi playing the noisiest racket ever on the guitar–scraping his bow across the guitar and producing guttural mechanical sounds that echoed and receded. And then when he started playing chord, he would swipe the bow down to punctuate the notes as he did so–this is one thing I’d love to see up close some day. And when the full band launched into the track it was the loudest-feeling live song I may have heard. Things settled down for the quiet (and brief) “Fljótavík,” before launching into the intense closer “Popplagið.”
This track is a magnificent song for building and building–adding tension and the climaxing. It runs about 11 minutes long and starts reasonably quietly (although it was much noisier live). It kind of swirls around for about 6 minutes while the images grew more and more intense as the song progressed. Then the drums enter the song with sonic intensity and the song grows and grows, Jonsi singing high notes all the while. Until finally the climactic event when the band goes nuts, the drums smashing everything, the music overloading (although again, never sounding like it was too loud for the venue) and the images just flashing insanely–like they couldn’t handle the intensity. The crowd got to its feet and we were all cheered.
Jonsi dropped his guitar on the floor as the wall of feedback hung in the air until it all drifted away.
The band came out in front of a big screen with Takk scrawled on it (Icelandic for Thank you) and we smothered them with applause.
There’s some great video footage from the show on Instagram–from people who were right up close, too.
It was a truly unforgettable experience. And yes, I would go back and do it all again if given the opportunity.
And now my complaint. This is a show I wanted to get utterly lost in, so why, why in the world were people coming into this show up to 45 minutes late. We were sitting fairly far back on the ground floor (frankly great seats), on the middle aisle. And people were just marching in holding their tickets and standing in the way. There were at least two huge climactic moments that were blocked by people standing in the aisle–one woman even marched up the aisle and then proceeded to turn around and watch while standing right in front of us–a quick usher got her out of the way, but obviously I was more distracted by her than I should have been. Courtesy and consideration is just gone. It was a testament to the band that most of these distractions didn’t bother me for more than few seconds, although I still wondered what the hell would cause so many people to be 45 minutes late to a show. Or worse yet, to walk out during the second to last song when the final song is so mind-blowing.
So in future, go for the middle so you are undisturbed by the hoi polloi.
- Set 1
Ekki Múkk from Valtari
Samskeyti from ()
E-Bow from ()
Dauðalagið from ()
Glósóli from Takk
Smáskifa from a B-side
- Set 2
Starálfur from Ágætis byrjun
Sæglópur from Takk
Ný Batterí from Ágætis byrjun
Vaka from ()
Festival from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Kveikur from Kveikur
Fljótavík from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Popplagið from ()