It’s solid album, but unfortunately, not a very solid follow-up to 1999’s Agaetis byrjun. Actually, if you ignore 1997’s Von and acknowledge that one as their debut album (it is titled “A new start” after all), ( ) could probably be called a sophomoric slump. Though, it should be noted it is not because of the album’s “concept” – more on that later – it’s simply because of the music.
At the risk of repeating myself on most every ambient or post-rock album I run into: you need good melodies to justify repetition. They’ve certainly got that on opener “Untitled 1 (“Vaka”),” which is essentially the album’s worth in a 6-minute summary – we’re throw a melody at you, repeat it, add layers, and Jonsi’s going to come in at one point and blow the joint out of the water. All the comparisons of Jonsi with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke are mostly founded on their penchant for falsetto, but frankly “Vaka” is the only time I’m ever reminded of Thom Yorke; here, outside of the main vocal melody, Jonsi’s heard wailing about, not unlike what Thom Yorke did with “Everything In Its Right Place.” And they’ve certainly got that on “Untitled 3 (“Samskeyti”),” though it behooves me to tell you they’ve essentially taken the twinkly piano straight out of “A Stream With Bright Fish” from Brian Eno and Harold Budd (and Daniel Lanois)’s The Pearl – just added more rests and a crescendo. Not a huge issue, since that song was fucking gorgeous and songs that replicate it successfully? Equally so.
Besides those two songs, and besides tracks 4 and 8, do the rest of the songs here justify their repetition? No. “Untitled 2 (“Frysta”)” seems to exist only to segue tracks 1 and 3 together (a 7-minute interlude, in other words); and tracks 5-7 blasphemously do the repetition-to-crescendo for near 10-minute lengths. I’d be fine with it if the payoff were as great as “Untitled 8,” self-knowingly a.k.a.-ed “The Pop Song,” where Dýrason’s drums in the second half sound as if the world is crashing around him, but their not. Actually, where “Untitled 8” climaxed naturally, the last few minutes of “Untitled 6 (“E-Bow”)” sound like a tacked on, louder coda to the proper track. Moreover, I’m a little irked by all the comparisons of ( ) with The Dark Side of the Moon. I’m certainly not a fan of that album either, but that album focused heavily on atmosphere. The songs on the second half of ( ) try for it, certainly, but when the drums are as insistent as keeping time as they are, it’s hard to get lost in the atmosphere because you’re constantly reminded that what you’re listening to is rock music, not ambient. I’ve singled “Untitled 4 (“Njósnavélin”)” because, not only does the track have the best melody of the entire album, it’s structured as a pop song instead of melodies directed to a crescendo. I mean, this one has bridges! Two of them! Though I could most certainly do without the 30 seconds of silence at the end of the song to digitally recreate vinyl playing tradition.
Of course, with any other album, that would suffice as its review, but unfortunately, we can’t talk about ( ) without talking about its supposed “pretentiousness.” Yeah, I don’t really find this album’s concept pretentious: by giving us an unpronounceable album title (I call it “brackets”), a leaflet of pure blank pages and no song titles (the common ones that everyone knows are what they were referred to on live sets and such), it ought to focus everyone’s attention to the music. You know, the main package of an album? Which is, ironically, the exact opposite of what actually happened. I’ll use Emily MacKay’s “The Unbearable Blankness of Sigur Ros” as my example, an installation of NME’s Sacred Cows series, where they “question the critical concensus around revered albums.” Sort of like popmatter’s Counterbalance series, without any humour or good writing (and there goes my future career at NME; oh well). Now, I find such a concept admirable, since there’s something immensely pleasurable about knocking canonical albums off their pedestal, but unfortunately MacKay barely talks about the music. Well, she does a little bit, “The rest all blur into each other in a neutral toned cloud […] I do demand a point and ‘()’ never either reaches a climax or a depth to makes its meanderings worth it” only suggests that 1) she didn’t hear the album all the way through, or else she would’ve heard “Untitled 8 (“Popplagid”)”’s stunning climax, and 2) she doesn’t like post-rock in general. So, of course, she focuses on the obvious, “Firstly, there’s the title, a pair of appropriately empty parentheses. How do you say it? Who knows. Oh, the songs have no titles, you say? What a dainty postmodern pavlova it is.” Truthfully, I haven’t a clue what a “postmodern pavlova” is, except that it’s a desperate attempt to make MacKay sound like she’s smart, someone who understands the meaning of “postmodern” and has dabbled in the world of desserts beyond that of your local grocery. Nice consonance, though. She marches on, “Then there’s the decision to sing in ‘Hopelandic’, an invented ‘language’ of syllables that almost sound comprehensible and intelligent but in fact mean nothing. This democratically allows the listener to supply the interpretations and meanings that Sigur Ros couldn’t be botherered to provide themselves, you see.” I honestly wonder if she’s got the same problem with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange or half of Shakespeare’s vocabulary. I don’t have a problem with Hopelandic. Actually, I think it’s a gorgeous language name. Personally, the repetition of the same syllables with slight variations makes it extremely easy to understand Jonsi, the same way listeners could pick out him singing “It’s youuuu” on “Svefn-g-englar,” even if that wasn’t what he was saying at all. I mean, did anyone actually understand what he was saying back when he was singing Icelandic? No. Did it even matter? No. So who gives a shit?