It’s tempting to proclaim Sigur Ros the coolest rock band in the world, because they’re from Iceland and it’s pretty cool there. But calling Sigur Ros a rock band is like calling the Rolling Stones a blues band–not a ridiculously obtuse description, but still in basic need of a ticket to the clue bus.
When the four guys who make up Sigur Ros walked on stage at the Strathmore, in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday night, they certainly looked like a rock band–there’s a singer/guitarist, a bass player, a keyboard guy, and a drummer. But rock bands don’t usually play at the Strathmore. This is the venue that the National Philharmonic calls home, for crying out loud. Old people listen to music here!
But the Strathmore was perfect for Sigur Ros and their set list, which included none of the three-and-a-half-minute, verse-chorus-verse numbers that fill up most rock shows. That’s because Sigur Ros (which translates from Icelandic as “victory rose”) plays something else entirely–songs that begin with a soft whisper of noise and build into shimmering crescendos of sound, rarely less than six or seven minutes long and often more than ten. They’ve been compared to Pink Floyd and labeled the vanguard of a new progressive rock movement. I’ve seen them called “post-rock.”
Whatever Sigur Ros is, the music is totally different from what’s played on radio stations that still insist on labeling themselves “alternative.” This band is the alternative to alternative. If I were Peter Jackson, I would have asked Sigur Ros to perform on one of the Lord of the Rings soundtracks–both because it would have been a fitting tip of the hat to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fondness for the sagas and language of Iceland, but also because I don’t know another group of contemporary musicians whose playing sounds so epic.
Accessible or not, something about Sigur Ros is defiantly uncommercial. They sing songs without names in a language nobody can understand. And I’m not talking about Icelandic, which is a language that the 300,000 inhabitants of Iceland presumably know well. Instead, singer Jónsi Birgisson’s falsetto voice warbles in a language of his own invention, “Hopelandic.” It is apparently a combination of Icelandic and nonsense words (not that I can tell the difference). To complicate matters, the previous Sigur Ros album was called ()–yes, that’s an empty pair of parentheses–and none of its eight songs was given a title. My iPod loaded them as “Untitled 1,” “Untitled 2,” and so on. (Die-hard fans do have names for them: “Vaka” and “Fyrsta,” for example.)
Who was the marketing genius behind that idea? Whoever he is, maybe he should get a few more kronas (that’s Icelandic money), because Sigur Ros somehow has found a niche–the show at the Strathmore was sold out (nearly 1900 seats), and the fans were obviously devoted. In the hallway afterward, I heard people saying things such as: “I liked how they played ‘Svefn-g-englar.’” That’s another song title.
Jónsi and his pals don’t exactly burst with personality. From stage, they said virtually nothing to the audience–they let the music do the talking. They were helped immeasurably by a string quartet of women who go by the name Amina–a group that has collaborated with Sigur Ros in the studio and whose strings add lushness to the music. My favorite Sigur Rose song is “Untitled 8″ from ()–known to us Sigurheads, affectionately, as “Popp”–and it never sounded better to my ears than it did Sunday night, with the ladies of Amina playing alongside the guys.
If you’ve gotten this far, then you need to stop reading and start listening. A lot of the best Sigur Ros material happens to be available free on the web.
You can even listen to the show I saw, which was broadcast live on NPR and is available here. For a quicker fix, check out the mp3 recordings on the Sigur Ros webpage. My advice is to download “Untitled #8,” a.k.a. “Popp.” If you think it’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to, then you obviously need more help than I can provide. But if you’re entranced by its sweeping range and spacey sounds, then try some of the others. A week from now, you may just find yourself humming in Hopelandic.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.