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Max Knies

Coming Up Rós-es: Jónsi Birgisson communicates with the aliens.

Cold, Cold Hearts

Iceland's Sigur Rós makes music that begs to be felt from a distance

By Michael Alan Goldberg

SOMETIMES, it's nice to believe that music isn't birthed from the cold, crass machinations of the record industry with its focus groups, overslick production teams, consultants and marketing--all cogs in an unholy assembly line bent on churning out heartless little pieces of shrink-wrapped polycarbonate product.

It's far better to picture an album arriving by way of a gossamer angel swooping down from the heavens, gently cradling its transcendent cargo and delicately placing it in the rack before returning skyward with a barely audible sigh, rapturous over its part in bringing a bit of divine magic to our corporeal world.

Sigur Rós' third release, (), makes such a delivery system actually seem plausible. Epic, gorgeous and emotionally consuming, the Icelandic quartet's 71-minute opus provides listeners with the rare opportunity to transport their souls to dizzying heights of musical bliss. The album defies simple categorization--elements of space-rock, post-rock, psychedelia and classical music.

The long-anticipated follow-up to Ágaetis Byrjún, the band's dazzling 1999 breakthrough album, () has already confounded and annoyed some with its unorthodox packaging and content: no album name, song titles or credits; minimalist cover artwork; structurally complex tracks; and, like its two predecessors, lyrics sung in "Hopelandish" (vocalist-guitarist Jónsi Birgisson's invented language).

But it's precisely the paucity of peripherals, lack of tangible directives and abstention from convention that allow one to access the experience more easily; to immerse oneself in the melodic ebb and flow; and to fill in the blanks with one's own feelings and imagery. It's the highest form of communion between musician and audience, and Sigur Rós pulls it off with uncommon artistry.

Arriving with solemn organ strains, a plaintive piano melody and mourning strings, the opening track announces an elegiac, hymnlike mood that underscores all eight of the album's songs. When Birgisson's shivery voice comes in nearly a third of the way through, it lends to the funereal air like a minister offering words of condolence. Those words, though Hopelandic, aren't completely impenetrable. Even if he's not uttering "You sit alone," "You suffer" or "Your soul is by my side," it sure sounds like he is, and the effect is strangely comforting and reassuring.

As the music slowly begins to swell, a slight but perceptible shift takes place--the vocals take on a more optimistic disposition. And then, as the song climaxes, the strings and keyboards drop away, exposing muffled, almost infantlike coos. Sadness, hope, the cycle of death and rebirth ... heavy stuff. And that's just the first song!

The second tract evokes more serene and expansive spaces--an icy pond in the still of winter, a vast sea of clouds spied from an airplane window--with its billowy layers of bowed and picked guitar, ambient electronic textures, drummer Orri Páll Dyrason's sparse beats and Birgisson's choirboy voice. The song calmly drifts into the next track, a gentle, majestic instrumental built on Kjarri Sveinsson's achingly lovely piano and bassist Georg Holm's cheery xylophone.

The album's most stunning moments, though, are yet to come. Dyrason's tribal thumps and Holm's ominous rumbles set the sinister tone of the sixth track, the reverb-and-feedback tension gradually gathering around Birgisson's vocal acrobatics until it all bursts in soaring grandeur. But that's nothing compared to track seven, the album's dark, 13-minute emotional core, where Birgisson's spine-tingling moans and wails and explosive guitar lead the band--and listener--into cathartic ecstasy.

One is almost left too drained to appreciate fully the equally chaotic and magnificent final track, but the beauty is that you can relive it all to your heart's content. Somehow, Sigur Rós has managed to capture on a thin polycarbonate disc that temporal epiphany, that blissful spirit, that blessed state of grace to which you simply cannot put a name.

Sigur Rós performs Nov. 23 at 8:30pm at the Warfield Theater, San Francisco. Tickets are $25 and available through Ticketmaster. (408.998.TIXS)

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From the November 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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