Sigur Ros's Sonic Lament, Live at Kings Theater, Brooklyn.
Over the last 20 years I’ve seen Sigur Rós live three times, most recently in 2017. Their concerts are usually maelstroms of ecstasy, bowed guitar feedback and distortion, crying-to-the-heavens falsetto vocals and thundering bass and drums, interleaved with moments of music box beauty and others of deep contemplation.
But their current North American tour with the Wordless Music Orchestra is almost all deep contemplation, with a few moments of music box beauty and no maelstroms. Although they played music from across their career, this all sounded much in the mode of their latest release, Átta, which is a dark, brooding meditation that seems not so much post-pandemic, but from the heart of the pandemic, draped with climate crisis despair. It’s part lullaby and part dirge.
In the awesomely beautiful Kings Theater in Brooklyn, a baroque-style 1929 former movie house renovated in 2015, the Icelandic trio took the stage crammed-in with the 41-piece Wordless Music Orchestra. They set the tone with the opening track, a hymnal piece called “Blódberg” (Blood Stone, a flower) from their latest release. The orchestra slowly rose out of silence, laying down an elegiac bed for singer Jónsi’s softly intoned vocals. He sings in a mix of Icelandic and his own Hopelandic language, so it’s difficult to discern meaning, but it felt like a painful plea to the heavens, as he sang quietly in his normal vocal range instead of the usual falsetto. It was a solemn hymn, a slow motion adagio that seemed to come from the edge of desolation. I felt like I not in a concert hall, but in a cathedral at a high mass. And that’s pretty much how the first set played-out as they moved through songs from albums including Valtari, Takk, (), and Ágætis Byrjun. Jónsi sounded like he was calling from the edge of the abyss, lost to himself and the world on “8” from Átta (which means 8.)
The sold-out audience of 3000 sat in silent rapture to these somber tones, but livened up whenever one of the “hits” arrived, from the music box of “Se lest” with Jónsi’s cooing vocals against vibraphone, glockenspiel and piano, all in minimalist cycles. They recognized the “Untitled #1-Vaka” from () instantly from the opening piano motif.
There was very little of the feedback bowed-guitar that Jónsi often employs. He moved from harmonium to piano to electric bass and a synth (I think; it was hard to see.) He did play his guitar with a cello bow several times, but it was mostly awash in the strings except on “Untitled #3-Samskeyti” where his bowed strings pierced the sheet of orchestral strings like a twirling knife. However, you can hear how much his vocals are shaped by the sound of controlled feedback, creating glissandos through phrases like Hendrix at Woodstock, only doing it with his voice. Another thing absent until the penultimate track was percussion. They lost their drummer Orri Páll Dýrasonin 2018 over an allegation of sexual abuse. The album, Átta, reflects his absence in its percussion-free landscapes, and that carried over to this live performance.
There’s no doubt that some of this could be rapturous, like “Skel” from Átta, which arrives like a technicolor sunrise, as the savior arrives, Jónsi’s upper falsetto keening against the sweep of the strings. I wish they’d performed “Klettur,” with its heroic sweep and ritual drums.
The Wordless Music Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames, was impeccable as usual, bringing a cinematic sweep to Sigur Rós’s songs, most of which originally never had orchestra at all. But it seems like the repertoire was selected to take advantage of that aspect which was why so many of the songs did not quite take you higher.
The penultimate performance. “Hoppipolla” from the album Takk proved to be the most dynamic and joyful of the show. Singing in Icelandic, Jónsi virtually shouted out the lines of childhood joy:
Spinning round and round
The whole world a blur
But you are standing
That was all in Icelandic of course. But the mood of this show was less joy than somber reflection, an extended lament for the earth. The world wasn’t just the blur in “Hoppipolla,” it was decimated, and Sigur Rós stood at the smoke-filled center, literally and metaphorically. Or maybe this is my own bleak view of the world right now.