Sigur Rós’s appropriately named eighth album comes a decade after the post-industrial rock of their 2013 «Kveikur». In the time in between, drummer Orri Páll Dýrason had left the band, and multi-instrumentalist and later classical composer Kjartan Sveinsson had rejoined frontman Jón Þór «Jónsi» Birgisson and bass player Georg Hólm, after leaving in 2013. Again, we find ourselves responding to a record which is, in its own turn, a response to the emotional and even global challenges presented by the pandemic and climate change. That’s not to dismiss this as «yet another world-in-crisis album» – artists are bound to want to respond, are entitled, perhaps even obliged to respond to momentous events. All we can do as listeners is see how their response makes us feel about the same events. In this case, the effect is a curious one. Perhaps we are unduly interested in genre, but it seems a fair question to ask in this case – what is this music? It is certainly not rock music. It shares a lot with the music of their countryman Ólafur Arnalds. There are simple, minimalistic musical structures, and haunting, breathy string and synthesiser lines as on the opener «Glóð» and the first single «Blóðberg», or on «Ylur» on the second half of the record. Then there are comparable spare piano motifs on «Fall». However, with the London Contemporary Orchestra at the band’s back for all but one track on the album, it is less spare and more forceful, and overall a fuller sound. The addition of Birgisson’s soaring falsetto is another a marked difference from Arnalds’s output. In any event, it is too composed, too much bound to some kind of melody, however elusive, to be classed as ambient music, but the impact on the listener is similar – it is immersive music on a massive scale, evocative of huge caverns of ice, acre-long stretches of black sand dwindling into distant water, or the night sky of a world seen on the brink of devastation. Indeed, you could say that it is on a symphonic scale – in fact, it is music which depends on its scale, rather like Rothko’s paintings. There are also passages, such as the close of «Mór», with is ghostly choral passages, that hint at a kind of Requiem Mass. «Andrá»‘s opening chants also suggest music written for a choir, though the tune is more transparently modern, almost suggestive of pop music in its melody. This is another track where instruments emerge from the arrangement, a piano, and later a guitar, where they are more often subsumed into the sound of the orchestra in the first half of the record. Despite its context and inspiration, the atmosphere of the record is not bleak. The melodies have more uplifting qualities, the sounds sparkle and soar, and the record is predominantly in Major keys. So, we have signs of hope. The vocals are largely so subtle that the lyrics cannot be discerned with any confidence, but as with their use of Vonlenska on earlier records, we should try to listen to the sound of the voice as an instrument in the context of the rest of the music and there is no doubt that the effect is haunting and lyrical. However, and it is a critical point to make, one can rightly take issue, I think, with the overall sound-world of the record. The music is unquestionably beautiful and evocative and the production is well executed for the style of music that has been written.
What the record lacks is any significant changes in dynamics or pace. This would be a problem for any record, whether a symphonic post-rock album like this or a hard rock or folk album. It is a little like being exposed to a wall of near-unfiltered emotion, and here the comparison with classical music bites a little harder, as when someone like Tallis or Mozart does this, it can be near overwhelming for the listener. «Átta» for all its fascinating musical qualities and general beauty, never achieves this level of musical power, and to that I attribute the lack of shifts in its musical landscape. After walking for eighty miles over Icelandic glaciers, we need a mountain or a valley or the ocean, but as with the words or the intended meaning of the vocal sounds, these turning points in the music, that play their part in our emotional response to it, are too often hard to get hold of. That’s not to say that the record is boring, far from it, but it does not provide the kind of emotional satisfaction and sense of closure that music in this style or on this scale can do. In short, a flawed masterpiece, and a matter for each listener whether the flaws are too hard to bear. And what of the theme of the piece, of a world-in-crisis? There is certainly hope for us, but in the final, dwindling, echoing notes of «8», the last and longest track on the album, perhaps we are shown that we too face the risk of fading into nothing.
4/6 Alex Maines
Release date: 16 June 2023