Sigur Ros – Agaetis byrjun / Valtari

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Sigur Ros – Agaetis byrjun (1999)

I saw Orion on Saturday night and I was in complete disbelief – I had never seen a constellation before in real life, and assumed those sorts of things weren’t visible in downtown Toronto – until my friend pointed out how clearly his easily-identifiable belt was in the winter night sky (it felt like -18 degrees Celsius that day). Anyway, no other album in the 1990s invokes the mystical vastness of space as much as this one does: the sonar pings of “Svefn-g-englar” (the best song, with a hook that manages to effectively communicate despite the language barrier); the radio transmission bubbling under “Staralfur” in certain points, making you feel like you’re floating through; the alien-ness of Jonsi’s vocals, which is high-pitched but doesn’t feel like a falsetto (which suggests higher than one’s normal pitch). The best songs here contain unexpected shifts or elements: the guitar detour of “Staralfur” and the soft fireworks of the drums in the section right after, both before the exciting climax (otherwise a great chamber pop song that points ahead to Takk…); the slow-funk of “Hjartao hamast (Bamm bamm bamm)” which would’ve been a bigger surprise if the Georg Hólm’s bass didn’t work so hard to connect the funeral horns of “Ny batteri” to the exaggerated blasts of Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson’s drums in the climax. By contrast, the worst songs here are merely dreamy (“Agaetis byrjun”; “Avalon”). Their best.

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Sigur Ros – Valtari (2012)

I wasn’t paying attention back in 2008, but maybe a lot of Sigur Ros fans were upset at the streamlined approach of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust which caused the band to retreat for 4 years (their longest wait between albums) into a Brian Eno safety net? At any case, their worst album: almost everything is inert, and the atmosphere of a lot of it is easy (ie. “Dauðalogn” and the title track); everything sounds like a lesser version of ( ). Jonsi, maybe the band’s greatest weapon, doesn’t sing on exactly 25% of it. Take highlights: “Varúð”, which has a decent rising-harmony, and “Fjögur Píanó”, which has some gorgeous piano twinkles – though the songwriting fails both: on “Varúð,” Orri Páll Dýrason directs the song to its climax by pounding out the cymbals but it’s likely their most mechanical climax ever (compare to “Popplagid”); on “Fjögur Píanó,” the band just add a string soup, highlighting the directionless of a lot of songs here.

Here are the relevant parts of Pitchfork‘s Ian Cohen’s review, who nailed it:

“…a tremendous example of a band that’s managed to own its lane while making it incrementally wider, and their consistently positive reception gives you the idea that the only way Sigur Rós could make a bad record is if they made one that was wholly unrecognizable as their own. Well, you won’t confuse Valtari as being the work of anyone else, if only because their sixth studio album so flattens and narrows Sigur Rós’ aesthetic to the point where the title scans as self-parody. “Valtari” is Icelandic for “steamroller,” by the way.

…Even the controversially blank () had staunch conviction in its commitment to supernatural ethereality– not to mention subtly impressive melodies and some of their most unsettling peaks. If you’re familiar only with Sigur Rós’ studio albums, you might hear Valtari as a maximalist version of ()— which would essentially negate the entire point of (). Too loud to truly pass for ambient music, yet too invertebrate to accommodate visceral pleasures, Valtari is most often simply there, the passage of time distinguished only by the occasional shift in texture.

…The problem isn’t that Valtari aspires to beauty, even if it’s a commonplace, celestial understanding of it. Sigur Rós have proven they can make indelible music that’s pretty and unpredictable, pretty and melodic, pretty and unnerving, pretty and inspiring. Valtari wants to be pretty and that’s it.”

One year later, they’ll change into something different; harder, darker – and better too!

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