Alongside the likes of Björk and Of Monsters And Men, Sigur Rós is one of Iceland's greatest musical exports, having over fifteen years redefined the boundaries of dream pop and ambiance.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Alive87
The members of Reykjavik-born Sigur Rós are something of an enigma, musically speaking. Critics for the largest music publications - NME, Rolling Stone, etc. - cannot help but compare their atmospheric music to the natural icons of their homeland; the heavenly ice caps or Hadean volcanic eruptions; and yet, the melodic outpouring of Sigur Rós is magically international and undeniably human, an emotive well that quenches the thirst of music aficionados everywhere.
Since the band's inception in 1994, there have been numerous members with only the lead vocalist, Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson, and bassist Georg Hólm - often referred to as white fang for an ability to catch trout with his teeth - remaining throughout. The band was named after Jónsi's little sister, Sigurrós, and translates quite literally to Victory Rose.
Kjartan Sveinsson served as both keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist from 1998 until 2013; in that time, Kjartan was responsible for many of the strange and unusual instrumental sounds so distinctive of Sigur Rós; the tin flute, oboe and banjo, to name just a few.
In 1999, Orri Páll Dýrason ("the animal") took over as the band's drummer, replacing founding member Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson following the recording of their monumental second album. Kjartan and Orri have since performed together under the alias "The Lonesome Traveller," playing Sigur Rós songs in an acoustic style and thus offering an alternative rebirth to the tracks that have made the band so illustrious. Clearly, a drive to push the boundaries of creative expectation is something inherent to each and every member of this post-rock powerhouse.
It is collectively that they are best, however. Their tenure as one of Iceland's most important musical ambassadors has seen Sigur Rós continue to redefine and challenge not only the ambient/dream-pop/post-rock genre but, more importantly, their own contribution to it. Their sound is widely seen to be dynamic, experimental and loyal to the lead singer Jónsi’s 1999 mission statement: “We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don’t think we can’t do it, we will.”
Now, after fifteen years of recording and touring together, Sigur Rós can be proud of their place in the musical halls of fame; a true example of Iceland’s tradition to first nurture the potential of esoteric, innovative young artists, then unleash them suddenly to an eager and very often surprised international audience.
How the world has loved them since. Musical peers such as Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Metallica, Coldplay, David Bowie and Red Hot Chilli Peppers have all, at one point or another, declared themselves fans, as have a range of celebrities including the likes of Natalie Portman and Motley Crue's Tommy Lee. X-Files star, Gillian Anderson, even uses Sigur Rós' music for her yoga routine.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by José Goulão
Subsequently, their cultural influence has known no bounds: members of the band have appeared as guest stars on shows such as The Simpsons and Game of Thrones; their music has been showcased during international sporting events, the 2006 World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, as well as numerous cinematic outings including Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and Matt Ross' black comedy, Captain Fantastic. Fans of television will have heard their tracks on shows so wide-ranging, and one can only stand in awe at Sigur Ros' ability for open interpretation; CSI Miami, Skins (UK), Queer as Folk, Misfits, Heroes, Top Gear, The Hills... the list goes on.
And yet, for all their groundbreaking success in peddling the avant-garde, the founding members’ earliest influences did not lie in the sweeping, up-and-down ambience of which they have become an essential sculptor, but in the heavy laden guitar work of seventies rockers; Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, even Leonard Cohen.
Inspired by this heavy, guttural sonority, Jónsi first picked up a guitar at the tender age of thirteen years old. It was, arguably, in that moment that the meteoric rise of the band, and thus, the Sigur Rós story, truly began. It is a story that would change not only the lives of the band, but Iceland's place in the creative world, as well as the nature and potential of music itself.
The band's formation is largely coincidental, with Kjartan being the only member with any formal musical training. Jónsi was chosen to lead the vocals, simply because no other member of the band could sing; the famous cello bow, used by Jónsi to create strange and imperial noises against his guitar strings, was only a second thought after Georg failed to make the sawing motion sound melodic against his bass.
Still, Jónsi at least had some experience with music, playing in a heavy-metal band called Stoned in the early nineties. After being signed as Sigur Rós, Jónsi and Kjartan would also disguise themselves as a band called Bee Spiders, winning the 1995 award for 'Most Interesting Band' at the Musical Experimentations competition. Even under a false name, the potential of these musicians was alarmingly clear.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Stig Nygaard
But, it was the band Sigur Rós that was signed in 1994 by the record label Bad Taste; Jónsi’s falsetto voice was predicted to appeal to a teenage girl base fan base, somewhat of an irony considering the vocalist is openly gay. The label itself was owned in part by Icelandic post-rock band, The Sugarcubes, whose guitarist quickly introduced the band's music to the British-born producer, Ken Thomas.
At this time, Thomas had already broken well into the music industry, having started his career as a technical assistant on early Queen recordings. He would later start work with punk musicians such as Martin Rushent and The Buzzcocks, before moving across to the underground label 'Filth Records' where he collaborated with 23 Skidoo, Clock DVA and the Sugarcubes. Though he would not produce the band's first album, he would later become an important collaborator of the band, instrumental in the legacy of Bad Taste.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Kenny Sun
In the band's first year, the group were more intimately involved in the 90s alternative rock scene, heavily influenced by such groups as The Verve and The Smashing Pumpkins. Practising and performing "slow, grand rock", the band temporarily adopted a counter-culture aesthetic, dutifully growing out their hair and playing up to the trends of the time. Finding their groove would take patience and discipline; over time, the group disbanded from any notions of being a grunge band, instead leaning on the ambient melodies that would come to define them.
Their first album, Von (Hope), was released in 1997, recorded in exchange for the band members painting the studio in which they worked. Within the first year of Von's release, the album had only sold 313 copies domestically.
Upon the album's completion, the band members listened back to it together and mutually decided that their next venture would make more impact. This was later alluded to as the last lyrics of the band's second album; "we sit down excited, listen to ourselves play in rhythm to the music / but the sound wasn't good / we were all in agreement / we will do better next time / this is a good beginning." Here, the band expressed with honesty their drive to continue pushing the limits of their own artistic expression.
Von is now a platinum record in Iceland, having sold over 10,000 copies. Still, it failed to match the innovation of their later work; the music was largely ambient, lacking that definitive and confident Sigur Rós sound that would later develop. The photograph on the album's front cover is of Jónsi's sister as a baby.
The next year, in 1998, the band would release a remix LP called Von brigði - an example of Icelandic wordplay (Hope and Disappointment or Variations on Hope). That same year, they would be joined by their new keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, who would later go on to contribute an enormous classical influence to the group's work.
Von (1997) Track Listing:
Total Running Time: 71.59
It was their second album, Ágætis Byrjun (A Good Beginning), that truly thrust the band into the international spotlight. A creative rebirth; Sigur Rós’ newfound direction and fascination with spatial definition created an album quite unlike anything else at the time.
Be it the ethereal orchestration, the softly placed falsetto vocals, the jumping sounds of Jónsi’s cello bass, scraping across the strings of his Les Paul, Ágætis Byrjun was, in many ways, the artistic beginning Sigur Rós should have always had.
Despite its reserved release, the album quickly drew the attention of Icelandic producers, and the band won themselves airtime and radio play across the country. Thanks in large part to internet message boards and word-of-mouth advertising, Sigur Rós was featured in a number of music publications around the globe and won the inaugural Shortlist Music Prize. In 2000, a year following the album’s domestic release, it was released in the UK.
Their breakthrough was not without hiccups, however. With the music ready, the band mates chose to glue their first printed albums together themselves in true DIY style. Because of this, many of the discs were left with glue stains and, thus, were left severely unplayable. Thankfully, this practical misstep did nothing to diminish the astonishing calibre of the album and reviewers were forgiving. Against all odds, Sigur Rós had now hit the big time.
Ágætis byrjun (1999) Track Listing:
Total Running Time: 71.43
‘()’ was the first Sigur Rós album to be recorded at their new, purposefully designed studio in Mosfellsbaer, just thirty minutes out from Reykjavik. Initially, the band had ambitions to compose and record their latest venture in a disused NATO base, found in the northernmost mountains of Iceland.
After scouting the sight, however, it was clearly seen to be impractical. It was the band’s producer, Ken Thomas, who first proposed the idea of abandoning the mountain retreat, instead suggesting the band create a space closer to home that would suit their every musical impulse.
And so, the band set about transforming a disused public swimming pool and former art gallery into their own personal slice of heaven. The upper level of the building served as the band's mixing and control room, whilst the lower level was dedicated to recording space.
As the title '()' suggests, Sigur Rós did away with song titles on their third album and chose to sing most of the lyrics in a "made-up language" called Hopelandic, or Vonlenska in Icelandic.
Despite it lyrically being gibberish, with no vocabulary or grammar, Jónsi chose to utilise his voice as a musical instrument in itself, likening it to the noise made by songwriters when they have decided on a melody but as of yet have to write the lyrics. According to the man himself - "When I sing songs in Hopelandic, I am singing the same words, the same sounds. It's more similar to English than Icelandic in many ways, but you can't translate it."
This is just another way the band took to transforming and maximising the creative process, thus adding to the deep collage of ghostly, hollow and heart rendering sounds so prominent on the () album.
Despite this development, when it came to recording the tracks onto the album themselves, the band was already exasperated with the tunes. There was also pressure from the industry itself, leaving the album with an imprint that seemed elegant, yet blank and distant. In other words, () polarised the band's fan base to a degree, with many claiming the work to be a new frontier in the genre whilst others felt the album failed to live up to its staggering predecessor.
() (2002) Track Listing:
Total Running Time: 71.46
Takk... was the band's fourth album and something of a new direction from their previously untitled venture. Unlike that album, the majority of the lyrics were sung in Icelandic, with only three tracks on the album - "Andvari", "Gong" and "Mílanó" - being sung in Hopelandic.
In its first week of release, the album sold 30,000 copies and ranked 27th on the US Billboard 200. A year later, it was certified Gold by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), signifying 10,000 copies sold in the UK alone.
Departing somewhat from the epic lengths of their previous tracks, many of the album's clock in at less than five minutes; on all fronts, it seemed, Sigur Rós was choosing to embrace and build upon the mainstream musical traditional.
That's not to suggest that Sigur Rós abandoned their celestial, gooey inclination; instead, the album takes the theme from a dark place to something more positive. The album won three Icelandic Music Awards; Best Album Design, Best Alternative Act and Best Rock Album.
Music from the album has since been utilised across a wide range of mediums; Ubisoft's Prince of Persia, BBC's Planet Earth series and the sports show, Match of the Day, to name just a few.
Takk... (2005) Track Listing:
Drawing from the gains of their fourth album Takk..., the band built upon their departure from classic, ethereal orchestrations to distribute more traditional, radio-friendly pop tracks.
In this album, one can hear a definitive folksy influence; orthodox guitar riffs, steady rhythms and playful acoustics. The album was co-produced by Flood (U2, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode) and recorded in New York City, Abbey Road Studios in London and Havana, Cuba.
Originally, the album was supposed to have English lyrics, though the band later decided that their native Icelandic was more natural. This meant that certain songs needed to be changed after recording, while others had to be rewritten from scratch. This album does mark the first occasion, however, where Jónsi uses English in his whispering falsetto, again offering the international fans a chance to connect differently with the band's music.
Music from the album has seeped heavily into pop culture; tracks have been utilised in films such as Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (2010) and Neil Jordan's Ondine (2009), as well as scoring the BBC's run up to the 2010 Olympic games. Almost universally, the album was critically acclaimed, with Rolling Stone declaring it the "most worldly, varied and considerate, the usual ice-floe speed of their rock impetuous."
After touring of the album was complete - footage from the tour can be seen in the 2009 film and accompanying live album Inni - the band returned to the studio, but found what they recorded to be unsatisfactory. From there, the band decided to go on hiatus in a bid to pursue other projects.
Jónsi embarked on a solo career with his partner, visual artist and filmmaker Alex Somers, creating first the collaboration album, Riceboy Sleeps (2009), then his debut, Go (2010). In this time, Jónsi also penned and performed one of his most well-known numbers, "Sticks and Stones" for the 2010 animated comedy, How to Train Your Dragon.
Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008) Track List:
Total Running Time: 55.36
As a collection, Valtari feels like an incredibly visceral dream; Jónsi's falsetto is not the particular focus of this album, his voice utilised instead to act as a layering instrument complimenting the wider piece.
And that's just it; the entire album is an atmospheric soundscape, a delicate compilation of subtle piano chords, ethereal string work and moody vocalisations, all dispersed with the odd, illuminating crescendo.
Arguably though, this is Valtari's greatest weakness; that the crescendos are rare, as though the band could not sincerely commit to pushing the glaring genre boundaries this album seems so confined to. Don't get me wrong, the music is recognisably from the same emotional source, the same evocative imagination that brought about Ágætis byrjun, but simply fails to scale the heights of its predecessors and, thus, is regarded to be one of the band's more underwhelming efforts.
A point of interest with the album's release; Sigur Rós, fully aware of their interpretative presence, set about creating a competition titled "Mystery Film Experiment." This competition would collate the best accompanying music videos to the album, offering the chance for filmmakers and fans to organically contribute to the album's creation.
At the time, the band said of the competition, "with the ï¬lms, we have literally no idea what the directors are going to come back with. None of them know what the others are doing, so it could be interesting.” The above film, Fjögur Píanó, was written and directed by Alma Ha'rel and stars Shia LeBeouf.
Perhaps most resounding in Valtari is the hauntingly beautiful concept of 'closure'. After a multitude of successful and critically acclaimed albums, live shows and international tours, Sigur Rós' rise as the world's leading pioneers in experimental post-rock would, at one point or another, change in accord with their ever-developing music. In that light, it would be the last album with their keyboard player and founding member.
Valtari (2012) Track Listing:
Total Running Time: 54.36
Kveikur is the first album by Sigur Rós without Kjartan, and their first after signing onto a new label. In that spirit, Kveikur sounds like neither the pop nor the ambient stylings previously explored by the band. Now fitting neatly into a 3-man band setup, Kjartan's keyboards have been replaced with a grittier, heavier sound - cascading drum sets, structured baselines, rumbling distortion.
One gets the impression listening to this album that, at the time of writing and recording, the remaining band members were themselves in a transition, asking questions and challenging their own musical authority.
In this way, Kveikur is a unique album to Sigur Rós; it is, in many ways, a new and redefined Sigur Rós entirely.
Kveikur (2013) Track Listing:
Total Running Time: 48.22
Most recently, Sigur Rós has expanded into new avenues; in 2017, whilst touring in California, the band released their own line of cannabis-infused gum drops, “Wild Sigurberry,” (not surprising, after all, given Jónsi’s 1992 band, Stoned.) Having joined up with cannabis brand Lord Jones, this product is limited edition and sold in a box of nine, decorated with the Sigur Rós crest.
Though only available at certain dispensaries in California (and for US nationwide delivery from the Lord Jones website,) the gumdrops themselves take inspiration from the flavoursome, wild berries of Iceland.
The band has also taken to DJing under the name Triple Nipple. Don't expect classic Sigur Rós, however; according to the statement on the band's website: "This is how Sigur Rós gets down and unwinds in the dressing room and on the tour bus after the show. If you'd like a window into their world, come on in. If you are expecting a mystique enhancing exercise in deep solipsism, look away now."
Away from the DJ booths and MJ-laced gummies, 2017 has seen Sigur Rós embark on an all-encompassing World Tour. First, in the US, performing at concert venues throughout the country, then in July of this year, the band will head to Oceania, performing in New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Japan. Following that, they will have the extensive European leg, a number of shows in South America, before closing the tour off with four performances in their home city, Reykjavík. Tickets for the shows not already sold out can be bought here.
If you miss the chance to see Sigur Rós this year in concert, fear not! Despite the band's official claim that they are not teasing a new album, they have already performed a new track - Niður - during the American leg of their tour. This was later revealed to be a part of a six-day festival planned by the group for December in Iceland. The festival, Norður og Niður, will feature the band, art pieces and visual exhibitions.
Fingers crossed, we will also hear the latest music. For Sigur Rós, four years wait is long enough.
Written by Mike Chapman