Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Sigur Rós - Valtari


There comes a time when you look back on a band's discography and recognize, without much difficulty, that despite wherever you've been in terms of the geographic of music in whatever field of composites or concepts, you know in your heart of hearts that this is a band that will retain a far more heightened case of both respect and appreciation, because of it. Sigur Rós are one of these such bands - their spacious, eerie, and often emotive sound has such a kindling innocence to it, it's hard to decipher whether the experience drawn from their records is of a four-piece icelandic band's music, or something more suited to watching a newborn taking its first steps, or witnessing the sunrise peak from behind the rolling of country hills. It's this outdoor naturism that speaks volumes about the band's past success and continuing interest. They may not be recognized by the wider margin of the global populous - their music lacking in its suitability for the dreary saturday-night telly or over-pretentious car adverts of today (though 'Hoppípolla' has become the sort of unofficial soundtrack to animals caught in slow-mo and flowers in full bloom...and the odd wedding here and there) - but that does not mean their effect can be felt far and wide.

Regarding the music itself, even if the band's more popier radio-friendly sound of 'Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust' was, to some people, a sighful hiccup - lead-singer Jón "Jónsi" Þór Birgisson having the last laugh with his 2010 solo effort which demonstrated with flying colours how catchy but beautiful this mix of baroque pop awe and energy alike, could be - the band have become one of these demi-god level entities that are looked up to yet still remain apprehended and affiliated to the concept of 'human after all'. Anyway, back on topic. Three years, a hiatus, one live album and countless rumors as to the new album's notable sound and direction later, we finally have 'Valtari'...or roller, to save you from engine-searching an icelandic-english translation. For those who were worried - or at the very least, anxious - as to whether the band would continue down the road of more baroque-focused four-minute melodies, fear not. For those who desired a warming passionate return to the cool and crumbling innocence of 'Ágætis Byrjun'...well, that my friends need more than just a one-line conclusion.

Before even receiving a single solitary note of this album, you can tell from the number of track and the lengths of said recordings that this a far contrasted direction from their previous venture. Sigur Rós here delve more into open and - in places - more vulnerable land, expansive ambience and simplistic layerings more favourable than quite possibly, any other of their albums released. The opening track 'Ég anda' - beginning with a frosty exhalation and Jónsi's chamber-filling voice symbolizes a familiar delicate layering we've become accustomed to, But here, the sounds are more open and investigative as if wanting to be discovered as opposed to simply hiding away in some abandoned cottage somewhat timidly, as demonstrated quite charmingly in previous albums. From there on, the track conjures up this glacial fog of strings, bass and distorted sound, removing all candle-lit humbleness of previous, pulling the track out into the radiance of Jónsi's recognizable conscious muttering. But the track feels less focused on a vocal companionship than you'd expect, the song dissipating just-as-gloriously away from the glow of instruments and vocals, ending in this cavernous mumbling of distortion and hidden-in-the-dark piano keys.

'Ekki múkk' the next track, is more direct in its progression, but actually goes about it from the base upwards rather than from the middle as was the case previous. Violins are more audible here, so too is the want and the desire to create this Earthly beauty that could not be replicated in any other fantastical landscape. Jónsi's elevation only adds to the somewhat tense and precious filing of fine details that each key of a piano or strum of bass that passes between the vocals and the timid backdrop alike. There is no real sense of movement so far as actually adding to the mold here, but rather the track feels static and confined to a specific space or point in time and everything around it, while reactive, is just as condensed. To use the word 'slow' would be an easy mistake to make, but regards as to the actual development of the track's structure, there's nothing that would merit a level of fascination or curiosity. In a nutshell, the track is simply 'there' to be admired, but also to be witnessed and then cast aside.

This isn't a bad thing. The idea of shifting a solitary focus from one entity to another - even if the observed in question lacks any form of sentient change to its position - is hinted at all the time in ambient music and even the most minimalist of compositions where it's actually the observer who feels more the subject than the subject matter itself, hence why it works so incredibly well. It's not something I'm critical of here, but the band tend to be focusing more on the tinier portions of a supposed musical land mass than previous albums. So it's thankful then that 'Varúð' steps away from this static post and opens itself up to the wider degree of mountainous venture, Jónsi's impactive calling of the title word ushering in this billowing of orchestration that draws from as far a resource as the highest peaks or the furthest void of existence. Again, the progression of keys and strings feels a lot more delicate and delicate in its tip-toeing manner between the clearing of fog and mist. But the supposed 'chorus' parts (if you want to define it as that) truly open the composition up into a much wider aspect of soulful harmonics of young and sloping deciduous landscapes of old. The closing section, which is encompassed primarily by a rising lead of heartfelt drum hits, only breaks down this self-created four-sided barrier the band have fortified themselves within, while a choir of young voices continues the spacious ascent into open territory.

But even with all these bold and brave new ideas that the band continue to push somewhat softly out into the open plains, at the same time there is a sense that they aren't afraid to return to previous ideas in order to transgress a track. 'Dauðalogn' shares a lot of common patterns with a major bulk of their previous album's longer pieces in that it relies heavily - almost too heavily - on the most simplistic of instrumentation and letting the vocals instead, carry the song through. There's no doubting the intensity and the effect it has on the overall eeriness of the track, but at the same time it doesn't necessarily share the same emotive storytelling as is the case with a respectable bulk of Sigur Rós' song catalogue. Digging deeper at these songs - and looking beyond what in some manner, has become a staple of the band's sound - I can't help but feel a lack of direction regarding the actual storytelling and carriage of expression. It's there, but it doesn't necessarily translate itself beyond just an innocence of character and mood. Much like the second half of this album which is where this slight fault surfaces the most, tracks like 'Varðeldur' fall ill to this mannerism and while the choice of sound can't be faulted, the processes taking place and the methods used to actually carry the track on beyond just a static placement of drone and delicately-layered keys and strings, really falters.

'Fjögur Píanó' then does what the previous tracks couldn't and actually manages to transform a simple lead of piano keys into something far more meaningful and rudimentary for focus. Breaking away from what was this preset of linear drone, and lifeless echo, the playing here feels more passionate and thought over rather than simply executed and quick to be compiled. And even when the latter half is added to by a pool of violins and other-worldly string arrangements, the track doesn't necessarily lose or gain any form of increased intrigue, but it certainly doesn't falter and run the risk of being so lost it becomes indulgent and merely responsive to itself. I can imagine people will grow fond of the former piano lead and the latter's evolving nurture of these additional strings, hence why I see this as becoming one of the stronger tracks on the record, purely out of its context, rather than its content.

Having said that, as I come to what I hope will be a logical and understandable conclusion - now having listened to each of these eight tracks with even greater detail and consideration than each previous ocassion - analyzing this record in order to figure out whether it's good or bad, does indeed answer my previous question (does it live up to the heights of previous records) as a result. The response: well...yes and no. To state this album is lacking would be to suggest the presence of a gap in a sound that tends to fill what gaps present with this unearthly earthly mix of organic and inorganic surreality. But rather than claim something is missing, it's more a case here that something, somewhere, has found itself lost in translation. But that is a very minute point on the grand scale of what is still a remarkable album. It's a wash with blooms of wonderful sound collages and experimental delicacy, you can almost feel them pouring out of the speakers, out into the open space only to continue growing. I don't necessarily get the same goose-bump-like reaction from these tracks as I did on first listen with the likes of 'Myrkur' via 'Von' or 'Untitled 3' from '()', but as a collective - as one amassed formula of action and accompanying reaction - 'Valtari' pulls this off with spectacular and considerate detail. Maybe, like the blooming flower it comes across as, this will grow in time, and maybe then we will come to appreciate the somewhat introverted and shying patterns of sound as something more. But for the time being, it remains a well-executed piece and well-deserved of, at the very least, some T.L.C: Timidly Loving Care.
~Jordan

7.5

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