Sigur Rós - Valtari
Fri 18th May, 2012 in Music Reviews
Sigur Rós fans have experienced an agonising wait for new studio material since 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. As much as that album was a break with tradition – as a playful and folk-influenced aesthetic which tugged at the heartstrings of the mainstream – Valtari is both a return to and a development of the group’s entrancing and emotive post-rock ambience. As it is the Icelandic band’s sixth LP, it highlights a notable developmental maturity. Produced alongside Alex Somers (yes, from Jónsi & Alex), Valtari is so overwhelmingly emotive and so aesthetically stunning that it renders itself both difficult to describe and difficult to escape.
Opening track Ég anda begins with the angelic vocal tones and audible breathing of frontman Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson. An entrancing tension is built up by Georg “Goggi” Hólm’s slow bass lines, yet the soundscape maintains itself as a sombre introduction to the album. The following track, Ekki múkk, begins saturated in swelling reverb and a crackle similar to that of an old record. The song’s quite cinematic string section leads into an elegant and unassuming piano-centred ambience, developing a tremendous sense of depth and space.
This imagery is magnified beautifully in Varúð – a definite standout track which resembles an ethereal appropriation of Ný batterí from 1999’s Ágætis byrjun. The piano sound on Varúð is remarkable – it appears as if it’s either being played underwater or if it’s emanating from a block of ice. The hauntingly uplifting tones of the string section are beautifully accompanied by Jónsi’s ghostly falsetto. As quite a choral piece, the song makes sure its dynamics are used to full effect. Crescendoing percussion helps build the tension, before relieving it so that it is held solely by sustained guitars and a choir of heavenly voices; the track’s surreal aesthetic is unmatched anywhere else on the album.
The dark lullaby of Rembihnútur layers Jónsi’s vocals, which are distorted at times, against a backdrop of xylophones, strings and high-pitched piano lines. The song builds to affected electronic drum pulses, yet its tonality remains soothing and organic. Varðeldur is the studio version of Lúppulagið, which appeared on 2011’s live album Inni. The Valtari version feels a little more solemn and slow, yet it retains the graceful interplay of piano and guitar seen in the original. The short moments of falsetto are astounding, however this is where the LP really begins to slow down and move towards the ambient.
The final two tracks, Valtari and Fjögur píanó, are almost experimentally ambient. The former is centred around a conglomerate of strange instruments and tone colours, and the latter is obviously heavily reliant on piano. These are not necessarily bad things, however the tracks are outliers on the LP. They finish off the album well, but are quite abstract and can seem slightly empty when experienced on their own.
As a return to Sigur Rós’ unique brand of post-rock, Valtari seeks to cradle its audience in an unassumingly beautiful soundscape. The LP is terrifically raw and therefore highly emotive. Some experimentation has filtered into the band’s recording process, and this has formed quite an intricate album. It displays the wonderful musicianship of Sigur Rós, and brings their entrancing aesthetics into the foreground. Fans will be pleased that the wait for new material is over, and even more so that the wait was worth it.