By: Kevin Schwartzbach
Sigur Rós :: 09.20.08 :: Jacques Cartier Pier :: Montreal, Canada
Highly cinematic and deeply emotional, experiencing the ambient yet epic nature of Sigur Rós' music live is sort of like stepping into a surreal art film. Throughout their prolific fourteen-year career, Sigur Rós (Icelandic for "Victory Rose" and the name of lead singer Jónsi Birgisson's sister), who hail from Reykjavik, Iceland, has managed to create some of the most distinct music of our era, characterized by slow, ambient crescendos that eventually explode into pure musical ecstasy. The nature of their music is such that you need not pay close attention to details, rather it allows you to remove yourself from your surroundings and let the waves of sound wash over you as it captivates the soul and transports it to a realm far outside the reaches of reality.
The concert took place at Jacques Cartier Pier, located on the waterfront of scenic Old Montreal. The venue itself consisted of a large outside area facing the stage, set against the backdrop of Montreal's magnificent skyline. Being so far removed from the downtown area added to the dreamlike effect produced by Sigur Rós' other-worldly music. As Montrealers in the distant city centre made their way to posh dance clubs and raucous bars I, and several thousand others in the know, set in for a wholly different experience, a night that would prove to be one of the most surreal and enjoyable of my life.
The evening kicked off with the opening band Parachutes, also from Reykjavik. Parachutes sounded uncannily similar to Sigur Rós, with soaring high-pitched vocals over ambient synth textures. They were so alike that an air of confusion permeated the crowd as inquiries of the current band's identity shot up all around from inexperienced Sigur Rós fans. Overall, Parachutes played a good set, but it seemed to most that they were merely a preview of better things to come.
After an unbearable wait, Sigur Rós finally took the stage. Sonar-like chimes clued the crowd in on the identity of the oncoming set opener, "Svefn-g-englar" (Sleepwalkers), a single off Ágætis Byrjun. A roar went up from the crowd as Birgisson's guitar joined in with its unique and unearthly sound. He achieves this inimitable sound with his trademark technique of playing guitar with a cello bow, evoking images of Jimmy Page doing the same decades earlier. However, unlike Page, who used this technique largely as a gimmick, Birgisson utilizes it regularly to create ethereal guitar textures vital to Sigur Rós' sound. The noises that emanated from his guitar throughout the night were so out-of-this-world that at times I would have forgotten he was even playing a guitar if not for seeing it with my own eyes. The opener also showcased Birgisson's distinct falsetto vocals, which captivated the audience all night long. Few voices prove to be as awe-inspiring as Birgisson's, even to people who are neither fluent in Icelandic nor Hopelandic, a gibberish language invented by the band, the languages in which Birgisson writes most of his lyrics.
The band's slow build up of "Svefn-g-englar" gradually drew the crowd into a dreamlike trance. Looking around, I saw most people completely engulfed in the music with their eyes closed, engaged in hypnotic swaying.
The next song, "Glósóli" (Glowing Sole) began with a rich and mellow bassline supplied by Georg Hólm, who dawned a spiffy tuxedo and fedora hat for the occasion. Hólm's slow-but-steady basslines, though usually not very virtuosic, provide fluidity and stability to the band's music. Essentially, his bass is the canvas on which Birgisson and Kjartan Sveisson (keyboards) paint their masterpieces. "Glósóli," in typical Sigur Rós fashion, progressively accrued more and more energy before erupting in a powerful peak, elevating the band and the crowd to a sublime level of euphoria. Drummer Orri Páll Dýrason appropriately wore a crown atop his head as he reigned over his kit all night, supplying the percussive energy crucial to Sigur Rós' signature intense crescendos.
The band played immaculate versions of several other older staples including "Ný batterí" (New battery), which began with an eerie cello bow aided guitar solo from Birgisson. During "Hoppípolla" (Hopping in puddles), one of the band's best known songs off Takk, Birgisson urged the crowd to sing with him during the refrain of "oh's" towards the end of the song - one of only two times he addressed the audience in his thick Icelandic accent. "Sæglópur" (Lost at sea) featured Dýrason on xylophone, which he switched to several times throughout the night.
The new album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (see the JamBase review here), which was released this past June, was well represented throughout the night. The band played brilliant renditions of tracks such as "Fljótavík" and "Með suð í eyrum" (With a buzz in our ears). "Festival" had Birgisson switching over to an organ reminiscent of the one featured in Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack," all the while spouting out florid Hopelandic lyrics with his spiraling voice. "Við spilum endalaust" (We play endlessly) began with an avant-garde keyboard exposition from Sveisson. This song was a prime example of how their new album departs from the erstwhile music, being much less ambient and more up-beat.
The set ended with "Popplagið," and as the song moved towards the inevitable explosion of sound I found myself once more lost in Sigur Rós' musical profundity. Straddling the boundary between dream and reality, I watched flickering lights and swirling psychedelic colors displayed on a screen behind the band, letting Birgisson's soaring voice and the sheer energy of the music consume me, only to be brought back to reality by the end of the song – the calm after the explosion – and the subsequent bawling cheers of the crowd. This stint of normal consciousness was short-lived, as the band soon came back out for their encore, the uncharacteristically up-beat "Gobbledigook," the first track off their new album. The members of Parachutes joined them onstage, providing pounding percussion to the buoyant tune jetted out by the Icelandic quartet.
As streams of confetti shot into the air, the crowd rejoiced, the band rocked and I reflected on how epic and enjoyable the event I just witnessed had been. Few bands produce the ambiance and energy during a live show that Sigur Rós does, and fewer bands still allow the freedom of reality that their music does.
Sigur Rós is on tour now. Their next trip to the netherworld departs Saturday from Red Rocks. Complete Sigur Rós tour dates available here.
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