Sigur Rós – Hvarf/Heim

Sigur Rós
Hvarf/Heim

Sigur Ros are the second most famous band to come out of Iceland (the first being The Sugarcubes, which featured Bjork as a prominent member of the artistic collective, before she went her own way), and Sigur Ros’s slowly building, majestic to delicate soundscapes draw upon and reflect the natural beauty of Iceland – of lush greenery, of pent-up volcanoes with magma roiling just below the surface, of cool, clear ice, snow, and air, and of the keening cry of gulls in mid-flight.

At their peak of their powers (mainly songs from Von, their debut album, and their second breakthrough album, Agaetis Byrjun), the band create long songs of seismic beauty, of expansive atmosphere, and of kinetic combustion, combining lead singer Jonsi’s thin, sharp, but ethereal to soaring, sometimes wordless (sung in “Hopelandic”, an invented language where Jonsi bends and extends his voice to fit in with the other musical instruments) vocals, with looming, ice-scraping to fiery guitars, that proceed at an unhurried pace, until the sudden liftoff of clashing instruments and exclamatory vocals that build to a cathartic release of sound and emotion.

Jonsi vocalizes in an unusual and distinctive tone, keening softly, usually in a high pitch, stretching out his words, so that they slowly, gently bend along with the sound, using his voice as another musical instrument, in the vein of Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins. Jonsi comes off as Liz’s male twin of sorts, with his yearning to sharp, slightly nasal tone.

Over the years the band has smoothed out their sonic display on successive albums, with earlier songs reaching a point where it sounds like magma erupting, and later songs tending toward a slowly-melting-glacier vibe. While their debut album, Von, introduced their just-forming sound (at its height, comprised of a shimmering, dense tone and Jonsi wailing away in anguish) to the world, it was the Agaetis Byrjun album that got noticed, and it struck a deft balance between softer numbers filled with Jonsi’s sweet croon and slow-to-build, quick-to-release, fiery numbers. The songs on Sigur Ros’s third album, ( ), are uniformly toned down in intensity, more spacious and contemplative, making for pretty melodies that just are not as dynamic or spell-binding as on their first two albums. The songs on the band’s fourth album, Takk, on the other hand, are uniformly faster-paced and focused on a more accessible, “rock-format” structure, but the tunes tend to run into one another and sound alike.

Now comes Hvarf/Heim (Hvarf meaning “disappeared” or “haven”, and Heim meaning “home”, in Icelandic), a “double album” where Hvarf is comprised of five unreleased studio tracks that have a fuller, guitar-based sound, and Heim, which is formed of six live, acoustic songs that were culled from a special concert tour where they played at various natural locations, like in caves or by fjords. These acoustic tracks are strings-based, lighter in composition, and less commanding than those on their studio albums, and, unfortunately, it is difficult to tell that they were recorded in natural settings.

The question then arises whether this double album is “necessary” in the overall scheme of Sigur Ros’s work. Does it show the band in a different light, musically expanding upon, or changing the direction of their sound, or perhaps creating new songs that might tread a similar, but winning path? When listening to Hvarf, the answer is decidedly “yes” for sustaining their known output, but on the Heim side of things, with its stripped down, string-focused, acoustic sound, the answer leans towards “no”. Most songs on Heim feel like a classical orchestra warm-up, what with all the low-key, drawn-out strings, and a too stately and measured pace.

The album starts off with the studio tracks, the first being “Salka”, which features a delicate, but expansive sound of guitar, slow drums, and Jonsi’s bird-like, elongated vocals, light, thin, and airy, singing the same short phrases over and over again, and pushing upwards in tone, almost like a mewling kitten.

The song is music-box pretty, but guitar-based, with bits of lighter, chiming guitar that builds up in sound, and changes to a quicker pace mid-way though the track, ushering in a fuller, more dynamic vibe, with horns coming in right near the end. There are no minor, low-key strings here, a presence that will later bog down many of the live acoustic numbers.

On the relatively short “Hljomalind”, Jonsi sounds almost like Chris Martin of Coldplay with his vocals sounding a tad sad and plainer on the verses, then rising and falling in short-sung phrases on the chorus parts, coming close to exclaiming, playing against the melodic, bright notes of ringing guitars. The song structure is in the more traditional verse, chorus, verse format, with quieter verse passages, and louder, more uplifting chorus parts. A break from this format occurs near the end of the song, when a short instrumental shift occurs replete with “Phantom of Opera” organ notes.

“I Gaer” starts off with deceptively pretty, music box tinkling, but glides into a deeper, slow-building guitar sound, like a wash of sky-scraping glaciers, recalling their older songs that create a majestic and cavernous feel. Sustained funereal organ notes round out the sound, while Jonsi sings in a plain, but mournful tone, drawing out his phrases on the verses and pushing out his vocals on the chorus.

The song pushes, then plateaus, then pushes more, with swirling organ notes, forceful guitar, and emotive vocals, going for the grand moment…and then it fades away and the underlying music box notes come to the fore to close out the song.

The song “Von” is represented twice on this double album, once as a lengthy, but involving studio track, and the other as the live, but lackluster, closing number. The studio track here is filled with lots of mellow, minor-key, classical-sounding strings, but by two minutes in, the sound becomes fuller and expansive, with pensive, spare vocals that yearn and reach higher, like climbing a mountain and trying to reach the summit. The song peaks and plateaus and continues this cycle, with Jonsi’s vocals another instrument mingling among the other instruments, until it ends with strings and a low beat.

Sigur Ros’s signature, low-end, “cavernous” sound is present on the almost ten minutes long “Hafsol”, along with buzzy bass, tapped cymbal, and what sounds like a sonorous, amplified violin. Jonsi’s vocals are very high and attenuated, with a little accented roll to certain words. Some of the instrumental sounds are sustained, and build up to a heightened sound, along with really high vocals that soar, sharp and thin, but exclaiming.

Many bands hem to the philosophy of overwhelming the listener with sound, with a multitude of instruments, rapid pace, and intensity of performance, and Sigur Ros does it here, with a faster pace setting in at around seven minutes, with constant cymbal tap, stirring strings, light, plucked notes, and eventually, strong cymbal crashes. Then it all slowly disintegrates into a scratchy “glitch-on-vinyl-record” sound…

Then it’s on to the live material, the first of which is a measured-pace instrumental with lower, contemplative strings, watery piano notes in repetitive runs, and then lighter strings are introduced, which get more prominent and mixed in with the piano notes, forming a sweet pull as the piano notes go into a high range. The song tapers off with only an occasional note at just over five minutes.

One of the highlights off Agaetis Byrjun, “Staralfur”, is performed live here, with its classical-strings sound, short runs of piano notes, and verse, chorus, verse structure. On the chorus, Jonsi’s vocals are plain and slowly drawn out, paralleling the sweetly aching violins, and there is even a part where he’s musically unaccompanied for a moment. By the second verse, the song picks up in brightness, and he sings in higher tone. The song is inherently appealing, but it sounds just like the studio version.

“Voka” is on the short side at five minutes, and is too muted and low-key to be transporting (another signature of a Sigur Ros song). The song is too measured and plodding, with bell-tone notes from a keyboard and mid-range vocals that turn to a higher, crying tone by the end of the song.

“Agaetis Byrjun” is another song that moves at a slow, measured pace, but it also delivers drums, piano, clear guitar notes (you can fingers glancing over the strings), a pretty melody, and especially lovely vocals by Jonsi, who sings lightly and sweetly, but also mournfully, sweeping upward on some of his phrases and really feeling the song.

At four and a half minutes, “Heysatan” is another short and slow one, with sustained organ notes, deeper-tone bell notes, and other sounds, with light, but plain vocals, and near the end of the song, an emergence of muted and respectful horns. There is much empty space in this song, with a long time between notes.

A live version of “Von” finishes the album on a quiet note, with a slow, measured pace, horns, drums, strings, and light, but plain vocals.