Friday, February 16, 2007

All time top ten - #2 - ( )

Pretentious lack of album name? Check. Pretentious song length? Check. Pretentious lack of track titles? Check. Pretentious lack of any writing anywhere on the case other than two mysterious shapes that have been interpreted as brackets, parallel sausages and everything in between? Check. Pretentious use of a fictional language when the bulk of your audience can't speak your native tongue anyway? Check. You get the idea. Compile any list of overblown, proggy, self indulgent records, and Iceland's own Sigur Ros' major label debut is likely to find its way to the top of it (or perhaps come a close second to Metal Machine Music).
So how on Earth does it find itself at this (fairly illustrious) position on this list? Because it is so amazingly rare to find a record that provides irony-free attempts at bringing high-art rock music to a stadium level and succeed this dazzlingly. Simply put, if you're this good, you can be as pretentious as you bloody well want.
Sigur Ros had established themselves as idols of the musical intelligentsia with their breakthrough second album, Agaetis Byrjun, full of ethereal, swirling sounscapes (yes, I know these are the Sigur Ros buzzwords, but they've become cliches for a good reason), sitting gracefully at the back of some of the most mind-bendingly stunning melodies ever heard. Celebrities arrived in droves. Metallica attended a gig, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow's first child was born to the sounds of that record and Sigur Ros were the IT band. So what did they do? Attempt a retreat into obscurity.
All the vocals by Jón Þór Birgisson (the man with a voice like Thom Yorke mind-melding with a children's choir) were recorded in a fictional language which was originally named 'Hopelandic' by the band, and was later revealed as gibberish. Songs became longer, averaging 8 minutes, with two songs pushing out past 12. The songs and album remained unnamed, the band claiming that the music spoke for everything. They were reluctant to do interviews.
Some songs can almost be called 'mainstream'. Track 4, appropriated by one Tom Cruise (another fan) for the closing credits of his epically banal Vanilla Sky, is the most conventional offering here, with something resembling a chorus, over vibrato guitar plucking, gentle rhythms and sweeping bass guitar and keys, while the mammoth Track 8 (or 'Pop Song' as the band have been heard calling it) is 12 minutes of gradually building tension, released in an explosion of bass drums and screaming guitar, almost the logical 21st century extension of late Led Zeppelin. Other moments are less clearly defined. Track 3, an ascending piano loop, played again and again above a slowly growing crescendo, is more of a movement in a symphony than a stand-alone song, but is mesmerising nonetheless. Track 5, after 30 seconds of silence (perhaps splitting the record in 2 halves like the album's 'title' suggests, is a sloth-paced affair which, while possibly the weakest link here, is possibly the perfect preparation (and perhaps antidote) for the slow-building series of climaxes that close the record.
But behind all the stories, pretentions and supposed difficulties of the album sit a collection of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever recorded. If ever a record rewarded repeat listens, benefited from being heard through headphones in a dark room, this is it. Contrary to popular belief, ( ) is anything but elevator music. Detail lies everywhere. No sonic nook or crevice remains unfilled or unexplored. Jonsi's voice is stretched to mosquito pitch, layered and thickened. Guitars are played with cello bows, not a piano key goes unplayed. And throughout it all, imagery is conjured, of sweeping, icy plateaus, eerily beautiful landscapes, starlight night skies and heart-crushingly gorgeous mountains, to name but a few possibilities. Because if there is anything, ( ) is about, it is possibility. The possibility that there is still new music to be made. The possibility that music will keep getting better. The possibility that it's still ok to be willful, obscure, self-indulgent (as, one might point out, the Beatles were in 1967) and create sheer, unparalleled, magic.

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