There’s a religious patina to the music of Sigur Ros, and it’s obvious that the altar where this Icelandic quartet worships is in the Church of Sustain. Nearly every song played during the Icelandic quartet’s impressive Los Angeles debut builds from a droning feedback, roiling organ chord or quavering bowed string. As the songs take their shape, the sounds linger sensuously in the air, occasionally building to a crescendo.
It’s a quiescent, massively textured sound that places Sigur Ros squarely on a continuum of psychedelic art rockers with Brian Eno’s “Music For Airports” on the softer side of the spectrum and Glenn Branca’s thunderous guitar symphonies on the louder, which the band augments with liberal (and intelligent) borrowings from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Low, Stereolab and Mercury Rev, among others. What sets Sigur Ros apart is their almost preternatural sweetness; their name translates into Victory Rose, and the title of their American debut, “Agaetis Byrjun” (Pias America/MCA), can be rendered as “a nice beginning.” Unlike the twitchy misanthropy of Radiohead (who relentlessly namechecked the band as an inspiration for “Kid A”), Sigur Ros radiates a bucolic calm.
Performing with a poker-faced matter-of-factness, Sigur Ros strikes an exquisite balance: One ironic smirk or rock star pose or feint of self regard and the music would collapse into pile of pretentiousness. Yet for all it’s formal rigor, the music remains accessible.
The young band even manages to turn their insistence on singing the songs in Icelandic (or their own portmanteau language, Hopelandish), which could easily turn precious, into an advantage. Sung in Jon Thor Birgisson’s eerie castrato, it adds an element of hushed mystery to the music, not unlike the old Latin mass. It was a mood that continued when traditional Icelandic musician Steindor Anderssen was invited on stage to add his deeper, cantorial vocals.
After the austere opening numbers, the music made a turn toward pop. A string quartet (which was submerged in the mix during the early going) was judiciously used, moving from the pungent harmonies of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to an arrangement that echoed the Baroque 1960’s pop of Left Banke or the Zombies. The set ended with a Velvet Underground-style rave up that replaced the earlier song’s legatos with percussive, staccato strumming.
At times, the slowly repeated motifs brought to mind late-70s minimalism, especially the Phillip Glass score for Einstein on the Beach. This comparison was reinforced by the police helicopter that hovered overhead for most of the show, it’s intensely focused searchlight slowly scanning the hillside. Along with the pulsing hilltop indicator behind the stage and brightly lit cross peeking over the outdoor theater, the effect was like a something from a Robert Wilson production.
Even with the distractions, the Anson Ford proved to be the perfect venue for this music; the turreted proscenium and band box amphitheater lined with cypress and palm provided a suitably dramatic space for the band to fill with their cathedrals of sound.