Sigur Rós – Valtari Global Listening Party

Sigur Rós - Valtari

On the night of Thursday, May 17th, at 7pm to be precise, Icelandic wonder-band Sigur Rós hosted a Global Listening Party for upcoming 6th studio album Valtari, which was streamed in full at the appointed hour across all time zones.  Since I always seem to be late to the party, I joined in the festivities with the airing of the 2nd song and without a proper dinner in the offing.  Heady from hot weather and a lack of food, I buckled down to the tasty task at hand – partaking in the subtly enthralling richness of the mostly palatable Valtari.

Sigur Rós is known for its, sometimes inordinately, long songs and the ones on Valtari are no exception.  The album opener “Ég Anda” must have been epic, at least in length, because it was around 7:08pm when I heard the strains of second track “Ekki Múkk” emanating from my computer.  Jónsi’s softly sustained, bright croon rose upwards along with gentle orchestral instrumentation.  A light frisson of strings and occasional plunked notes surrounded Jónsi’s vocals like a pleasant cocoon as he slowly drew out his sweetly unintelligible words (Is it Icelandic?  ‘Hopelandic’?  Angelic?) for a good 6-plus minutes.  Do I detect a hint of Morten Harket’s pure, high-flying style in Jónsi’s vocal delivery?  That would be a supremely pleasing yes in my books.

“Varúð” (Oh, jeez, these accents are dampening my typing enthusiasm) is, do I have to say it?, another long-player, clocking in the about the same time as the previous song, but it’s rife with slightly wavering antique piano notes, with Jónsi soaring lightly like a sparrow over the piano, buoyed ever higher by rising crests of poignant strings.  The chorus is a beauty to behold – a gorgeous hymn filled with Jónsi’s slowly swooping vocals.  As his voice becomes distanced, a pull of lower strings and drum beat emerge, and the sound swells with additional jagged guitar until it all builds up in intensity, like a wave crashing over the listener.

Another hallmark of a Sigur Rós song is an expansive atmosphere that diffuses from the focal point of Jónsi’s vocals.  This can be found on all the tracks here, including the reflective “Rembihnútur” which delivers delicate piano notes that fall like dewdrops and a toned down Jónsi murmuring who-knows-what prettily in the background.  With sneaky stealth Jónsi switches to a plainer, sing-talking vocal line about 2 and a half minutes in, and is bolstered by a shuffling beat and bright electronic sounds.  In an even more surprising move, the song ends at under the 5-minute mark!

The deliberate, ponderous pace continues on “Dauðalogn” as a sighing choral background and sustained instrumental accompaniment compliment Jónsi’s contemplative vocals.  The amorphous sonics float by with no percussion as Jónsi changes his voice to a higher, yearning key, coming on like an angelic choirboy carefully entering the hallowed ground of a cathedral.  This song, like the others that precede it, gives off an exalted vibe, luring the listener into believing a spiritual transformation is occurring through the power of music.  Or maybe I’m just hungry and letting my imagination run wild…

Each successive song on this album is very much a part of and follow-up of the other, and the near-instrumental “Varðeldur” journeys along the same avenue with gently played piano notes and bright, light instrumentation.  What sounds like high-pitched, wordless vocals pop up in the background as the piano takes on the sound of a music box.  It would all be quite relaxing save for the repetitive nature of the piano refrain and the buried, but warbling vocals that have my interest waning…

I had to take a dinner break at this point and dumped a can of SpaghettiOs in a pot. Can’t waste my precious music-reviewing time, so a canned dinner will have to do!  Title-track “Valtari” is up next and what I hoped would be the strongest song on the album goes on way too long at over 7 minutes.  Well, it’s not the length that’s a turn-off, it’s the continuation of the music-box sonics and other sustained sharp, keening sounds that generate aural fatigue.  A starry chime tries to override the, again, unsteady vocals in the distance, and strings hover and slowly gather strength, but to no avail.  This is either a twirling-ballerina-figurine nightmare, or for the brave few, a precious tinkling-chime fantasy.  I had to take a breather and stir my SpaghettiOs…

I didn’t realize it at the time, but “Fjögúr Píanó” is the album ender and it starts with no sound until contemplative antique piano notes resonate in the mid to lower range, slowly meandering along, with the lower notes grounding the piece, while the lighter notes go on a flight to…?  The destination is not evident and there is a lack of intricacy to the melody, so my interest lags… I’m now longing for the smoldering frisson and fiery cataclysm of Sigur Rós’s early masterpiece “Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)” off of Ágætis Byrjun.

Valtari was released worldwide on May 28th.

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