Despite living in Iceland for a period of my life, I’d never sampled the pleasures of Iceland’s finest band live. For those unfamiliar with the output of Sigur R’s, the band is truly like no other: its music is unique, powerful and moving, highly emotive and other worldly—from a world with better music than our own.
So, yes, you could say my expectations were high, sitting on the floor of the Carling Academy, respectfully listening to support band Amina’s ambient charms, yet eager for Sigur Rós to take the stage. Amina’s set concluded and the band departed. Before long, the lights changed and the heavenly atmospherics of Takk… rang out. And then: atmospherics fused with a powerful, chugging bass line, delicate keyboards singing in the background, and the first of Jónsi’s paradoxically fragile, distressed and yet powerful and utterly focused vocal performances: Glósóli, from behind a screen, only flickering shadows of the band visible, heightening the magical, ethereal qualities of the music.
The screen rose: Ágætis Byrjun’s quiet Ný batterí took shape, Sigur Rós augmented by a brass band. As expected, the piece eventually exploded with a flurry of drums—a stark contrast in ambience to what went before, and a powerful live force to behold. And then: another song, another change of mood—introspective and insular, the dream-like, filmic Sé Lest filled the venue, the slight and subtle rhythms drawing everyone in, before theatrics took hold mid-way, a brass band marching triumphantly, jauntily across the front of the stage before the piece drew quietly to a close.
And so it continued: a set of marked contrasts, but consistent beauty; of shifting positions, musicians as fluid as the music they played; of haunting, mesmerising sound and arresting videos projected on to screen and performers alike; of magical splendour that reached to your very soul and moved you to tears. From the charged emotion of Hoppípolla’ss relentless beat and engaging vocals to the uplifting Olsen Olsen’s epic majesty, from Njósnavélin’s stark, windswept sounds and charged, brutal beauty to Smáskífa’s surreal overlaid soundscapes, ending with a single band member on-stage, playing alone, this band’s live music has a life all of its own: a sound freed from the constraints of compact discs and vinyl recordings—a sound free to evolve, becoming even more powerful and relevant in the process.
Nearly two hours after the screen rose, it slowly fell again. Sigur Rós returned to the shadows, giant, blurred and distorted figures fading in and out as the final embers of Popplagið decayed, the band returning to the mystery from where it came. It was all I could do to wrench myself away from that place, where everyone felt like they had been touched by something magical; but leave I did, walking into the cold night with the most beautiful of memories echoing in my mind.
Carling Academy, Brixton, London, UK
(November 9, 2005)
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