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Preview: Icelandic band Sigur Ros brings atmospheric sound to town

September 19, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 19--Sigur Ros isn't just your typical post-rock band from Reykjavik, Iceland, that builds sonic glaciers and sings in a made-up language known as Hopelandic.

Sigur Ros has risen from whatever volcanic shadows one might have expected it to reside within to become the type of entity that does a "Simpsons" cameo and signs on for a role on "Game of Thrones."

In its nearly 20-year history, Pittsburgh has only ever gotten one look at Sigur Ros, a Byham show in 2003 when the band was touring on its third album, which went by the title "( )," leaving the listener to fill in the blank.

Sigur Ros now returns a decade later, aiming its sound at the West End in what is likely to be an unforgettable show outside Stage AE. It coincides with the release of the band's seventh album, "Kveikur," which fittingly translates to "fuse."

The Sigur Ros sound began to fuse back in the grunge era, 1994, when singer-guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson (aka Jonsi) formed the band with Georg Holm and drummer August Aevar Gunnarsson (later replaced by Orri Pall Dyrason) and took its name from the singer's younger sister Sigurros (which translates to "Victory Rose"). After initially toying with Smashing Pumpkins-style rock, Sigur Ros debuted in 1997 with "Von," the type of creaky ambient record that could scare the little ones away from your house on Halloween.

The sound began to take on more shape for its 2000 breakthrough "Agaetis byrjun," with the addition of classically trained pianist and arranger Kjartan Sveinsson and Jonsi's use of a cello-bowed guitar technique.

Sigur Ros declared on its website, "We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don't think we can't do it, we will." While it didn't rock the Top 40, serious music listeners bought into the staggering beauty of the music and Jonsi's otherworldly falsetto, loved even by Thom Yorke, who would take the band on as an opener for Radiohead. Pitchfork conceded, "They are the first vital band of the 21st century" and listed it as the second best album of 2000 (behind Radiohead's "Kid A") and the eighth best album of the 2000s.

The album won the inaugural Shortlist Music Prize and surfaced in the mainstream on various soundtracks, including "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou."

Everything written about Sigur Ros talked about how the sound reflected the frozen beauty and fiery volcanos of its home country (comparisons they've naturally grown weary of).

"I don't really know. I can't really say," Mr. Holm says when asked about that in a phone interview. "I guess in some ways. One of the songs [on the new album] is actually about a volcano eruption. So there's a direct connection there. We don't sit down and write music that we feel reflects Iceland. At least it doesn't feel like it when we do it, but being from Iceland, the atmosphere, and just living here will always have some effect on what we create."

On the "( )" album, which came with no song titles, the band created the same kind of sweeping landscape over which Jonsi mostly repeated the nonsensical phrase "You xylo. You xylo no fi lo. You so." His invented language of Hopelandic was meant to leave interpretations up to the listener, which explained the 12 blank pages in the album package.

Sigur Ros has since released the more accessible "Takk" (2005) and more guitar-oriented "Meo suo i eyrum vio spilum endalaust" (2008), translated as "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly" and featuring the band's first track, "All Alright," sung in English.

"Even though [Hopelandic is] a really natural way of singing, it also becomes a little repetitive and monotonous," Jonsi told Spin of "Takk." "It's always the same syllables and words again and again. So it is nice to change it up, and when we did 'Takk,' most of the songs are in Icelandic, and I think it's good. I remember at that time, maybe we were in between labels, or changing labels, or whatever. I think the label was like, 'If you can sing in English, try that.' And writing lyrics in Icelandic was just so much more natural for us to do, because it's our mother language. The songs are easier to write in Icelandic than in English."

What followed after "meo" was a three- or four-year layoff during which an album was scrapped, there was a baby boom in Sigur Ros and Jonsi went off to release an instrumental album with boyfriend Alex Somers and issue his solo debut, a dream-pop record with English vocals called "Go."

Sigur Ros re-emerged last year with "Valtari" (described by Pitchfork as "an ambient bubble bath") and followed that quickly in June with the more jarring "Kveikur."

"It kind of looks funny on paper," Mr. Holm says of the timing, "especially when you talk about Sigur Ros, because there's always a long gap between records. Basically, 'Valtari' was a collection of bits and pieces, music that we all really liked and we always meant to finish and were never able to, and never had the time to do it. I guess it was 2005 or 2006 we started to make a record, the first recording session was back then. It was a record we were always coming back to and going away from and coming back to. It was a thing that happened over many years, and we were able to finish it after our break for four years. A break from touring at least.

"When we started touring and it got released, we were already playing around with writing some other new music and stuff like it. Then, it just happened quickly and we thought, 'We should go somewhere with this, because this is really different.' It kind of just rolled naturally for us. I guess we rushed a little bit because we were so excited about it. We basically finished it while we were still on tour."

Work on the new album coincided with the departure of pianist Sveinsson, changing the band chemistry in a big way and forcing a Sigur Ros reinvention.

"I have to admit, I think in a good way," the bassist says. "I think we needed change, and this was one way to make a change. I think the dynamics within the band changed a lot, like really quickly, overnight, with Kjartan leaving the band. It was different making this record, at least partly because we were a three-piece. I think it was good. It was what we needed. He wanted to do something different. So it was a win-win situation."

Sigur Ros responded by forgoing piano on "Kveikur," a darker, dystopian record showcasing the explosive rhythm section and embracing more aggressive elements of electronic dance.

"I don't think it was a conscious thing that it became so aggressive. When we started writing stuff, we all knew we wanted to do something different. That was the only conscious decision, that we wanted it to be different than anything we'd done before. We all knew it was in ourselves that we wanted to reinvent a little bit. I guess maybe the aggression comes from that."

Lyrically, he says, "We did the same thing we usually do, I guess that was the only process that was pretty much the same. We kind of just sat down after we recorded everything and listened to the tracks and just wrote things down that came to mind. The lyrics were written out from that. It could be just a general feel of a song or specific words that we felt fit the song really well. Sometimes the lyrics don't exactly fit the music. Sometimes the lyrics are kind of mellow where the music is aggressive. That happens sometimes. The first track on the record, that bass-y note thing, we kind of all got this image of some sort of beast waking up and stretching its arms."

Sigur Ros is on the road, playing before fans who have come to the band from many different angles, ranging from "The Simpsons" and "We Bought a Zoo" soundtrack to the "Kronos Quartet Plays Sigur Ros" release.

"I noticed the other day we were playing a show and it was amazing to see such a broad spectrum of people in the audience -- teenagers on up to old guys with gray beards," Mr. Holm says. "There's a lot of different people who listen to the music, and I think that's really great, that a lot of young people are discovering a band that has been playing for such a long time."

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.

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