In the grand scheme of things, Sigur Rós hasn't been gone that long, but with the solo and soundtrack work of frontman Jónsi, and the speed of the internet age, the group's return, aside from being more than welcome, does also feel somehow long overdue. Following the live document Inni, the band has now made its official return with a new studio album, Valtari.
And what a curious return it is. From note one -- which, depending on how you hear it may last two minutes -- it's clear this is a Sigur Rós record. What's new about it, though, is that it bears little resemblance to 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. That album had introduced a level of dusty, acoustic playfulness, a tautness to the band's post-rock spectacle that was a welcome shift in a trademark giant sound. Jónsi's solo work on Go ramped those layers up in to a pop circus, something far brighter and keyed-up than any Sigur Rós record could dare to be.
And now Valtari turns its back on that. What we have here is meditative, glacial in its pacing, and mostly (with a few exceptions) lacks the enormous crescendoes the band was always building to on past records. It's a curiously fragile record, especially considering its title translates in English to "steamroller," but it's a record that often rewards patience. Opener "Ég anda" is barely there until cymbals ripple in under Jónsi's angelic voice and the song, full of keening strings and shimmering effects, takes as much shape as it possibly can. "Ekki múkk" takes a similar tack, though it's elements, chirping and swirling throughout, seem defined by the clear piano in between them all. The results are only slightly clearer, but beautiful and pastoral all the same.
It isn't until "Varúð" that we get our first trademark Sigur Rós rock spectacle, with thudding drums and choirs of voice and guitar and strings rising and converging in a powerful wall of sound. It's fuzzed out at the edges, a break from the wide, shimmering breadth of the rest of the record, and as such becomes something strange -- it is both exactly what we expect from the band and an outlier on this record. It's followed, though, by the album's best track, the spacious, roiling "Rembihnútur," which rides on Jónsi's echoed voice and plinking keys until it opens up over a surprisingly industrial beat. It takes the shining textures of Jónsi's solo work and the tight structures of Sigur Rós's last album and refashions them into something murky and beautiful, a collection of shadowy sounds defined more by the light around them than their own darkness.
From there, though, the album glides on ambient waves. From "Dauðalogn" to the title track, the album breaks apart and never quite reforms as beautifully again. This isn't quite like other albums, though, where the band establishes an early majesty it just can't keep up. Here Valtari settles back into its early borderlessness. If it still sounds beautiful, and it does, it also obscures the performers themselves. Sigur Rós's knack has always been for playing with that line between the player and the sound. No matter how spectacular, how over the top it goes with its sound, the band's best moments see the players shining through, you hear the voices and instruments where all that sonic layering started. You see the organic, very human start to a sound that morphs into something absolutely otherworldly.
The band itself doesn't come through enough on Valtari, and in that way it feels like a record that misses some opportunities. Beautiful front to back, it's still an album that never quite asserts itself. It's got moments of greatness, and is a welcome return (and sometimes a slight twist) on the band's sound. But you might find yourself missing, as you replay Valtari, is the band itself. Because while the music is back, you might find yourself listening for its origins, still waiting for the players themselves to return.
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