Sigur Rós at The Academy of Music
Iceland’s Sigur Rós performed a very special pared-down concert at the Academy of Music on Saturday, October 8th, and for a group popularly known for their employment of lush strings and orchestral swells, I couldn’t resist the chance to see the outfit stripped to their core. Playing in Philadelphia for the first time without departing member and multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Svensson, a lineup change announced via Reddit back in 2013, the band finds itself a trio for the first time since the release of their sprawling debut album ‘Von’ almost 20 years ago.
Boasting no openers and 2 full sets of music (complete with intermission), this program quickly sold the 1,300+ seats in the auspiciously ornamented Academy of Music. As an avid concert goer and longtime Philadelphian, somehow this was my first foray into this resplendent venue and I felt it absolutely necessary to wear a tie. Built in 1855, the “Grand Old Lady of Locust Street’ as she is also known is the oldest Opera House in the U.S. still used for it’s original purpose, and she was clearly chosen as the venue most capable of adding any additional modicum of grandeur to the shimmering, gossamer tones of Sigur Rós’ music. I couldn’t think of a more perfect setting for the 2 hour concert journey, spanning 7 records and 2 decades, that I was about to embark on.
For those unfamiliar, while widely experimental the predominant musical themes explored by Sigur Rós include the core triumvirate of Bass, Guitar and Drums (Georg, Jónsi) and Orri respectively) supplemented by a bevy of synthesizers, pianos, brass, woodwinds and strings to create lush, symphonic soundscapes that build to gradual crescendos and cathartic releases. Founding member and Singer/Guitarist Jón Þór Birgisson (aka Jónsi) employs a cherubic falsetto seemingly handed down directly from the angels carved into architecture at the Academy of Music, often singing in a made up dialect called ‘Hopelandic’ in which the emphasis is on the sound and repetition of syllables rather than the words themselves. The rising tide and receding themes in their music serve to push and pull the listener into a trancelike state, a magic trick that has not gone unnoticed by the endless list of directors requesting their pieces for soundtrack and trailer placements.
This facet of their music has not gone unexplored by the band, either. Ending a multi-year hiatus in 2012 by finally realizing their long held dream to record and release a choral/ambient album (Valtari), the band infamously supported the double LP by engaging film directors to interpret the music rather than do interviews themselves (the Vatari Film experiment). The follow-up record, and most recent effort, ‘Kveikur’ would see the group adding darker and more electronic elements to their sound. This concert, however, would be more focused on stripping things away than adding any additional layers, and save for a few brief moments of familiar cover art projected from within, the band remained obscured on stage throughout the performance by carefully placed LED walls and theatrical haze.
Both sets would start with new compositions, the first of which had only been played out a dozen or so times before being road tested here in Philadelphia. Simply titled “Á,” the song immediately engaged the audience with it’s filtered drums beaten by mallets, the three-piece ensemble bathed in a digital backdrop of smokey space dotted with floating points of light. The set’s 2nd song “Ekki Múkk” would be the only cut from ‘Valtari’ performed in the evening, seeing Georg switch over to keys while Jonsí played guitar with a cellist’s bow. The quiet beauty of this piece washed over the theater without the necessity of percussion, and when the pounding intro to the 3rd and most familiar song of the set (“Samskeyti) finally rang out it was met with an approving applause. Though this would be the 1st of 3 songs in a row from their darker and most popular record “( )”, it would be the boy from the cover of “Takk,” their next and much brighter album that would be projected through the haze of fog and light-emitting-diodes to morph and ripple in time with our performers. These projections manifested from inward directly over the head of Drummer Orri Páll Dýrason on stage right, joined by Georg “Goggi” Hólm (normally stage left) on Xylophone while Jónsi sat, yes sat down, at center stage to deliver us the first true crescendo of the evening, a full 20+ minutes in the concert. This delayed gratification set the hairs on my arms standing at full attention while sparse, extended strobe blasts punctuated every pound of the drum kit. Songs 4 + 5 of the set, “E-Bow” and “Dauðalagið” would bring more approving applause at their recognition and ramped themselves into fevered performances that would include at least one string snapping on Jónsi’s guitar (while playing bowed!) and our LED walls switching from scant points of light to an ethereal green hue, with drummer Orri pounding away with the deadly combination of 1 stick and 1 mallet. The tension had been built and released so expertly, that a transition into personal favorite ‘Glósóli (1 of only 2 tracks played from 2005 album ‘Takk’) actually moved me to tears. Yes, I am not ashamed to admit that I sat by myself in row G at the academy of music and wept tears of joy in 2016. In fact, I am thrilled I am still able to do so.
Set number one came to a close with the obscure cut ‘Smáskifa,’ taken from the 2xLP rarities and acoustic collection “Hvarf/Heim.” Witnessing these classic Sigur Ros compositions in their newly refined presentations is the farthest thing from underwhelming. With minimal instrumentation and fanfare, these brilliant and grandiose soundscapes sounded no less monumental sans string and brass sections. Electric guitar hummed proudly, rung out by a cellists bow. An acoustic, modified by electronic filters, accompanied tracks from ‘Ágætis byrjun’ to perfect complement. Mallets and brushes glided gracefully one minute and crashed violently the next, yet set number two would start with the trio standing together tightly, centered and performing the brand new ‘Óveður’ to the beat of an electronic drum pad. If the core of Sigur Rós have toured these songs across the world to demonstrate that decay can be as beautiful as sustain, the point was not lost in Philadelphia. By removing the “comfort blanket” and pulling back the curtain so to speak, Sigur allowed the audience at this performance an omniscient viewpoint of the 4 track skeleton that has been dancing merrily underneath the dressings of this gorgeous music since we first fell in love with it’s beautiful facade.
Almost metaphorically, the second set of the evening began with the members obscured behind behind a retractable LED wall, blending electronic pulses with vocal harmonies, banded tightly together. It wouldn’t be until three songs in, on ‘Sæglópur,’ that the screen would raise itself to reveal our musicians, and by the crescendo of ‘Ný Batterí’ they would have taken their rightful places at their respectful instruments and commenced a transcendent jam session. Visiting tracks from all of their remaining albums, the better portion of the following hour was spent interpreting an embarrassment of musical riches with each member taking turns at the forefront of the soundscape until it was finally Jonsí’s turn to hold a note just long enough for us to wonder how it could be real; soloing in a single smoky spotlight until the entirety of the concert hall was echoing his falsetto alone. A moment of pure operatic magic.
Much like the instruments on stage, large portions of the visual production spent many moments in disuse before surging into focus. Red beams of light began to conjoin and form constellations and even entire universes before our eyes, a moving digital tapestry bending itself into the will of our performers. Stars flicker and become pixelated geological formations, resembling faces at times and unknown objects at others; satellites orbiting a vast sea of pulsating diodes. Eventually everything is pulled back from the center of the screen as a great planet sized void consumes the totality, the shattered crimson pieces swirling around the outskirts in its wake. Here, in the final four tracks of the evening, we reach our full sonic potential and the same instruments our performers were so lovingly cradling and coaxing sounds from within just moments ago we now see them violently pounding, thrusting and even detuning ad nauseam into an urgent cacophony of diminishing sonic returns. This dissonant decrescendo winds down until we are rewarded with final cuts ‘Fljótavík’ from the Flood-produced “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’ or ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly,’ and ‘Popplagið’ or ‘Pop-song’ from the heavily favored “( )” which saw 5 of its tracks performed live in the evening, 3 more than any other album.
Raised to our feet by these final performances, the audience enjoyed the full force of not only the band at their heaviest (Drummer Orri now shirtless) but the production and lighting fully engaged, and for the first and final time in the evening a cornucopia of colors bathes our performers instead of one lone hue. Beckoned by applause, we welcome the band back on stage for an encore not to perform another track, but to take another bow, collectively appreciative and wowed by the hours of beautiful music performed by these three lone musicians. They meet our demands all smiles and energy, blanketed by a projection of “Takk,” Icelandic for ‘Thanks’ and release us back onto South Broad Street to ponder how lucky we are to have been present. A special thanks to the band for undertaking this tour with no specific record to promote, and also carrying 5+ LPs at their merch booth, as well as to the Academy of Music for hosting such an amazing production. Without exaggeration, this was one of the most beautiful concerts of my life. If you have not listened to or seen Sigur Rós live I would urge you to do so at your earliest opportunity!
[Photos by: Josh Campbell Photography]
[Article by Aaron Ruxbin]
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