I am lucky enough to have known a chap for over twenty years who has a relatively limited but still remarkably choice musical taste, and in recent years I’ve accompanied him to a number of mind-blowing live shows around London – Sufjan Stevens and Grandaddy in the last two years. Last night, it was Sigur Ros.
I’m no expert of Icelandic ambient rock, but I’m aware of Sigur Ros from their extensive use in film and tv, not least the ubiquitous Hoppipolla, which have been used, well, everywhere. My expectations were muted; my companion was concerned about their being sufficient audience respect to allow the music to live and I was concerned that I just wouldn’t get it. Neither of us need have worried.
Brixton Academy – surely one of London’s most atmospheric and evocative venues – was packed and expectant. Sigur Ros emerged on stage and launched into new track, Yfirboro, behind a sheer curtain onto which were projected an array of swirling and meandering light patterns that echoed the haunting and enchanting music. The audience remained silent and respectful during the delivery, but were rapturous at the beginning and end of each song. My expectation of the gig was for lots of twinkling melodies and a dream like atmosphere, but I was surprised to see that Sigur Ros can also be threatening and thumping, dark and menacing, and songs seem to meander between these emotions even within themselves.
Added to the bewitching soundscapes, which include Jonsi Birgisson’s extraordinary falsetto delivery in a made-up language (as if Icelandic wouldn’t have been cryptic enough), a cacophony of light and images pulsed, burst, brimmed and charged from the stage like they were themselves were made alive by the noise and responded to it in kind. Always mesmerising it was, at times, astonishing, particularly during Brenninstein and Festival, and the projected swirling flames, underwater swimmers, gnarled rocks and child-like faces added immensely to the intense experience. And this was an experience, not simply a band on the stage knocking out tracks for the latest record. There were goosebumps. Hoppipolla itself brought gorgeous calm to proceedings, before the second half of the main set ramped up the noise, light and emotion to the closing Kveikur.
Not that Sigur Ros were finished. The intensity was continued through the two-song, twenty minute encore, with the closing Popplagio from () perhaps the most sensory, arresting and uplifting encore I’ve ever witnessed; like an Icelandic Muse on steroids with an alien on lead vocals throwing a million lights out into the night. Indescribably epic.