If I could provide you with just that one word as my complete review of Sigur Ros’ September 19th show at Stage AE, I would. Sadly, writers are expected to be at least slightly capable of examining and explaining the world, and it’d be negligent of me to leave you, the wonderful reader, with nothing more than a two-syllable summation of a two-hour long concert.
The show began with a short set by the luminous Julianna Barwick. I missed all but two of her songs, so I won’t speak much on her live style, but what I heard was equally as ethereal as her most recent release, Nepenthe. (Side note: don’t wait in the parking lot to hear an opener begin before going in. Often, as was the case with Ms. Barwick, bands cannot be heard outside of the venue. Tactical error.)
The 30-minute set change between acts provided me with more than enough time to wonder how my lyric-driven brain would respond to Icelandic. In recordings, it’s easier to take Sigur Ros’ vocals and composition as ambient, post-modern rock and digest it as such. I resigned myself to at least attempt to imagine each voice as just another instrument. And then the show crew brought out and rearranged bells and strings and drums and brass. There were guitars and keyboards and single light bulbs on tall stands. I worried that perhaps adding another “instrument” for my brain to keep straight was a bad idea.
They began their set began with Yfirborð, off of the recently released Kevikur. It’s an ambitious opener that feels more like a track from one of their previous albums. It’s slower, pretty, almost less-experimental. Perhaps in opening with something new that sounds so much like something old they were appeasing the many fans in the audience who have so obviously followed the band since its inception in 1994. This worked. The throngs of21-year-olds were just as pleased as their middle-aged counterparts. All heads swayed in unison, as projections of what I think were artistically blurred and filtered cordyceps fungi shifted slowly on the projection screen behind the 10-or-so musicians on stage.
The core band members, Jón Þór “Jonsi” Birgisson, Georg Hólm, and Orri Páll Dýrason, were joined by at least six others who did everything from sing ghostly, minor-key backup to play the French horn. In addition to a full drum set, there was a second half set with a series of differently sized bells hanging above it. Sigur Ros moved adeptly from song to song, never spending too long playing tracks from one album. In this way, they managed to keep the pace from ever flying too high or sinking too low. The full setlist is below, thanks to setlist.fm.
About halfway through, a very tall gentleman in front of me split a pill in half and handed a part of it to his friend along with a beer. He mumbled, “put this in your mouth,” and his companion dutifully obliged. I waited patiently, sure that their sways and bobs would become frantic soon, or that they’d end up just a beat or two behind the rest of the crowd. I was happily surprised when they remained as engaged by the stage as the rest of us. But thinking back on it, what was I to expect? Attending an avant-garde, Icelandic rock show is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for a transitional fan. It’s for people who are delighted by flashing lights and projected floating bodies. For those of us who can, in fact, imagine that foreign-language vocals are just another part of the lushest of musical landscapes. For fans who cannot wait until the next time Jonsi picks up his bow and drags it along the strings of his electric guitar.
All Photos ©2013 AWELDINGPHOTO and Pittsburgh Music Magazine