The Icelandic wonder of Sigur Rós

Iceland is a strange country. Rugged, arctic nature with volcanoes and geysers. Horses with gaits unlike those of any other in the world. Sigur Rós, a band that plays music unlike that of any other in the world.

The Sunday evening gloom arrives and Ilosaarirock is coming to an end. I’m at the Main Tent early, yet still way too late to get a view of the stage. Luckily there are screens, I think to myself.

A sizzling excitement can be felt throughout the crowd. I’ve heard that I’m in for quite a spectacle: the band arrived to the festival with several truckloads of stuff. It is no wonder that people zoom through the crowd competing for the best views.

Then it begins. The vocalist Jónsi’s (Jón Þór Birgissonin) strong yet soft falsetto soars through the air from unseen depths. The screens radiate a green and blue hue. Patterns and colored flashes from the stage start to appear: a piece of a guitar, a corner of a keyboard. I can abandon my hopes of seeing what’s happening on stage just by looking at the screens.

I close my eyes and focus on the music. A rich tone floats down from space on which the echo of the falsetto glides like a seagull over the sea. This is something people have also called post-rock

The sea of people ebbs and flows and I find myself moving slowly closer to the stage. On the dim stage I can make out an 11-person orchestra playing all kinds tinklers and wind and string instruments. Among them hang light bulbs set at different heights that look like they are floating in the dark air.

The trimmings of Jónsi’s black shirt flail in the air as he plays his guitar with a violin bow.

One cannot sing along to Sigur Rós: there is no way my voice can even attempt to reach the heights the vocalist is just breezing by and I don’t speak a word of Icelandic. The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that some of the lyrics are in Volenska, or Hopelandic – the band’s own pig Latin – which to an untrained ear sounds like Icelandic, but does not mean anything.

One cannot really dance to Sigur Rós, either. I cannot remember the last time I saw an audience that stood this still. Sure, some people sway and jam, but most people just stand there, motionless.

They are doing exactly what they are supposed to: they are listening.

I, too, try to listen and focus: I try to remember the difficult song names and name the instruments being played at any one time. I try too hard and find myself hesitating. I am knocking at the doors of music and I am not being let in.

Luckily I wise up and let go. The words are quite meaningless. Lights shoot up to the Main Tent’s canopy and the guitar drills into the brain.

This band’s music is a combination of surprising elements. Slow tempos and speeding, galloping rhythms. Silences, echoes. Space hisses and space noises. Distinct individual instruments and massive, grandiose scenes. At times there is also this intriguing heaviness and aggressiveness: ominous war drums and vampires.

The colors on the screens go from blue to red, the images from windy fields to fireworks. The lights and the music create associations. They do not command or direct, they guide. They lull you into a trance.

One minute I am wading through thick snow on an endless trek, the next I am pressing my toes into sun-scorched sands. There are dark alleyways and angelic singing that takes you toward the light.

Sigur Rós focuses on what is important. They perfom with serious, concentrated faces. No time is wasted on stage talk except for a few mumblings into the microphone. I interpret these to be song names.

As the gig nears its end, Jónsi gestures the audience to put their hands up. The crowd reacts immediately. We are sailing in thick waters for which I cannot find a better description than ‘musical orgy’. Whatever it is, I do not want it to end. The lights are gushing and the music just keeps on growing. Jónsi throws away his bow and presses his forehead against the microphone.

A darkness falls and the band exits the stage. The music goes silent.

The collective euphoria is insane – the crowd craves for more and lets the band know it. Unfortunately, the gig is over for good. It is good to go out on top. To tremendous applause, the musicians take to the stage once more for a final bow. They look relieved and happy. The audience requires one more bow before it lets the band go.

Thank you, Sigur Rós, you are somehow exotic and homely at the same time, spacey yet earthy. Something never heard before that still soothes like a mother’s lullaby. You will visit us again, won’t you, please?

Text: Sini Heinoja
Photos: Lauri Hämäläinen and Tuukka Pakarinen
Translation: Jyrki Laitinen

Aihe(et): In English.