For the better part of two decades, Iceland’s Sigur Ros has navigated a musical path all its own. Building consistently since the breakthrough success of 1999’s “Agaetis byriun,” the band has amassed an impressively large and devoted international fanbase. Surprisingly, “songs” have never been part of the band’s central compositional engine; instead they write pieces of ethereal music that revel in their own grandeur and emotional ripeness.
Returning to North America for the first time in four years, Sigur Ros treated its Los Angeles fans to a relatively intimate concert on the lawn at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Joined by a six-piece string and wind section, Sigur Ros was in fine form, performing selections that served to highlight the most grandiose moments in the group’s discography.
Exceedingly long composition lengths, bowed electric guitar, dense orchestral swells and lyrics sung in both Icelandic and Vonlenska (a nonsensical language developed by the band) are the musical trademarks that have come to define the group. It is an untraditional sonic recipe, but the epic quality of the sound combined with lead singer Jonsi Birgisson’s unmistakable, crystalline croon has connected in a very serious way with listeners. Sigur Ros concerts have become like a sort of communion for the converted — an important, emotionally charged cultural event.
Though new album “Valtari” is beautifully restrained, emphasizing ambience over rhythm, the band was more interested in dynamic contrast — building, over long periods, tremendously epic crescendos of sound. Early on, it was impressive. Birgisson’s voice is a surreal, chillingly beautiful sonic instrument that seems to exist in an almost inhuman realm. He delivered each word and melody with such effortless power that the songs and arrangements almost seemed heavy-handed by comparison.
Though certain older songs injected the set with an undeniable rhythmic power (“Hoppipolla,” “Festival”), new songs “Ekki Mukk” and “Varuo” were revelatory because they avoided obvious arrangements, electing abstraction over sheer volume. “Ekki Mukk” made especially effective use of silence and a haunting set of vocal loops, which weaved intricately between Birgisson’s live verses.
As the set continued, the band and audience both seemed to fall into a trance-like state. Expectations were consistently met. “Olsen Olsen” came to life with a blaring finale of horns, drums and wordless harmonies. Birgisson’s bowed sheets of distorted guitar were inevitably joined by a thudding percussion beat. “Svefn – G – Englar” clicked to its mysterious, sonar-like pulse, and “Hoppipolla” chimed with a whimsical blend of vibraphone and piano. The inevitable release at the end of each song served to entertain and inspire the audience but, over the course of two hours, became a bit redundant.
The group returned for a two-song encore, which ended with an extended rendition of longtime set-closer “Popplagio.” As the house lights flashed, the full ensemble took to the front of the stage — bowing as the audience showered one last round of applause. The group will now leave for a lengthy international tour with no future North American dates set.