Writing about Sigur Rós is an exercise all but guaranteed to bring out the element of futility in trying to write about music at all. To experience Sigur Rós for the length of an album, and then to lift yourself out of your reverie in order that you might struggle to translate those slow, massive, fragile washes of sound into some kind of literal synopsis, is to be prompted for a moment to wonder why you ever felt the need to put music into words in the first place. This band remains alone in contemporary music, as they always have done, in asking their listeners to do nothing more than lie back and surrendur themselves to celestial, unapologetic beauty. They are completely uninterested in ideas, and they give the impression of bearing exactly zero relation to anything else in the musical landscape around them, so that it is pointless to try to situate them in relation to other artists. Besides acknowledging their loveliness, there would seem, at first glance, to be very little for a critic to do with them.
I am attempting to write about them anyway, not only because there is, of course, a little more to the picture of Sigur Rós than a cursory listen might suggest, but also because I wish to call for a critical re-assessment of one of their records in particular. Valtari is the band’s sixth album (out of seven) and it was released in 2012. With the exception of their all-but-forgotten debut, which is really of interest only to the diehard fan, Valtari is the least valued, least highly regarded album in the band’s catalogue. I believe this to be an accident of critical perspective. To my ears, this album is in many ways the most complete, most uncompromising realisation of their aesthetic that Sigur Rós have put on record.
A brief recap of the band’s discography. Sigur Rós were introduced to world by their 1999 sophomore album, Ágætis Byrjun. In discussing that record it is hard to avoid using what have become the standard epithets applied to this band: Ágætis Byrjun is an album of huge, “glacial” soundscapes; “angelic” melodies and vocals; “epic,” sweeping, orchestral journeys between a succession of “towering” crescendos. It sounded like nothing anyone had heard before, and it swiftly led the Icelandic band to be adopted with enthusiasm by the international English-speaking music community. To their credit, Sigur Rós were unphased by success: 2002’s ( ) delivered essentially the same kind of music over again, and so did 2005’s Takk … – though the latter did lean rather more noticeably towards the sweet and comforting, and away from the melancholic and mighty. This stylistic shift was taken to new lengths with Með Suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust in 2008, on which the band attempted to reconcile their sound into the conventional format of the three-minute pop song – creating, to borrow the Brian Wilson catchphrase, an album of “pocket symphonies”. A four-year hiatus followed, and then Valtari. Here, the sound was stripped back dramatically, and every concession to the mainstream was erased. To many, it sounded like a retreat, even a reaction: Sigur Rós back in the territory of Ágætis Byrjun and ( ), abandoning their attempts to say something new. To some extent, this was correct: Valtari is a return to their early days. But it’s also something more, and something better.
It is, in fact, Sigur Rós at their most austere. Valtari does not simply ditch the sunny and tinkly streak that made its two predecessors just a little too sugary. It also veers away from any measure of tunefulness. Sigur Rós have always been heavy on atmosphere, but Valtari is their first record on which mood and texture are just as important as melody, if not more so. It’s a left turn towards true abstraction. Despite this being indubitably a band of whole albums, fans of Sigur Rós have always been able to talk about individual songs as though they were individually meaningful pieces of music. Most of Valtari defies such treatment: it is a fifty-five-minute variation in a single mode. What was at first taken for a return to basics is, in fact, a selective refinement of one particular aspect of the band’s vocabulary, and that is their ability to create ethereal, gossamer-thin compositions in which the empty space conveys just as much as does the substance. For all their tenderness, the previous five Sigur Rós albums always sounded fully fleshed out and clearly defined. Valtari frequently sounds barely present.
To be sure, if it were nothing more than a near-hour of near-minimalist soundscapes, Valtari would risk seeming formless. But it isn’t: its entire expanse is instead defined and given significance by its relationship to the one moment when the whole thing coalesces and becomes visceral, urgent, and dense. That is “Varúð,” the third track, which builds to a crescendo that sounds like a mountain hammering on a glacier in a hailstorm. In a career full of mighty climaxes, “Varúð” offers arguably the most mighty, the most dramatic of them all. But where previous albums might have reproduced such a level of intensity several times across their running time, cresting and retreating and thus leading the listener between a series of peaks, Valtari concentrates its entire length on the build-up to, and wind-down from, this one summit. It’s like drifting in a small boat across a misty sea, with “Varúð” the one rocky crag that rises above the constant but constantly shifting water.
Thus the album begins by leading you for a few long minutes through a gentle, fragile soundscape – a quiet, calm green sea – before the waves begin moving with a little more rhythm, and there begins the first slightly better distinguished phase: the yearning, unspeakably lovely “Ekki Múkk”. The boat rocks very slowly up and down, and the clouds above seem to gradually part to reveal a vast expanse of starry sky. A current slowly becomes apparent, tugging the boat in one particular direction. This lasts for many minutes before a different current takes hold, the boat changes direction, and soon we are in the churning waters that race and pummel around the great mass of “Varúð” projecting from the waves. Then, after several minutes of unparalleled desperate intensity, the boat seems to slip away sideways and is pulled into a softer, slower current – the delicate opening few minutes of “Rembihnútur” – that carries it slowly and gently away. For the rest of the album we drift further and further off, as the silhouette of “Varúð” against the starry sky behind us is slowly lost to sight, as the mists once more close in. But we are not drifting away in a straight line. Our boat meanders, feather-light, through different moods of the sea – some slightly calmer, some with slightly different shades of blue and grey and green, a little more or less frothy, a little more or less transparent. We are yearning for something, and we are grieving, and the presiding spirit over this ocean remains a spirit of tender sadness. Slowly and softly, we fall asleep, cradled in the arms of the water and stars.
Reviews called it forgettable, unsurprising, underwhelming, insubstantial, and merely pretty. Nobody said it was bad, but the general consensus was that Valtari is a minor work when set against the albums that preceded it. Many listeners felt the absence of the full-blooded epics and conscious drama that they had grown to expect. Valtari’s ambient tranquillity definitely has its antecedents in the previous five Sigur Rós albums, but there it had always been used as a foil for the heavier moments, not treated as worthy cloth from which to cut an entire record. It didn’t help that the band’s next album, Kveikur, which came just one short year later, was a much more obviously radical departure, full of heavy, aggressive instrumentation and an aura of dark, brooding menace. With this as the contrast, Valtari looked like it had been a dead end – like it had left the band no alternative but to strike out in a bold new direction.
In its modest, unassuming way, however, Valtari itself represents a bold new direction. Its concentration on atmosphere at the expense of hooks, its dismissal of explicit melodicism, and its total lack of interest in accessibility even by the standards of Sigur Rós, all mark it out quite distinctly from the rest of the band’s discography. Valtari takes the most abstract, least conventional elements in the Sigur Rós sound, and weaves a complete and remarkable work of art out of those few fragile strands. It asks us to immerse ourselves in a vast soundscape defined predominantly by subtle variations of texture. Remarkably, however, it does so without sacrificing the emotionalism and pathos that suffuse the band’s larger-scale work. The passionate orchestral grandeur of classic Sigur Rós sounds almost bombastic by comparison with Valtari’s fairy music, but the great discovery here is that the fairy music can be every bit as affecting as the angel music. Valtari seeks to conjure the same kind of tender paradise that Sigur Rós have always sought to evoke, but this time they conjure it sparely, simply, and with quiet dignity. And that, it turns out, is enough.