Friday, November 18, 2005

Thinly veiled brilliance


Tonight's support act are four unassuming Icelandic sylphs who waft in from the wings to tinker with an assortment of instruments (violins, acoustic guitars, synths, glockenspiels, brightly-coloured plinkety-plonkety children's toys), in the process conjuring up remarkably arresting instrumental folk-and-classical-influenced avant garde music in the vein of less apocalyptic and more pastoral A Silver Mt Zion upon a stage which initially appears much too large for them but which they gradually come to fill.

A band in their own right, Amina are also Sigur Ros's string section. Being let out to play and having full roam of the stage is obviously the source of some pleasure to them, but after a relatively short set concluding with a short, sharp curiously up-tempo electro tune it's back to the day job.

The best part of half an hour passes - hot and sticky amidst the capacity crowd, ambient noise recurrently fading in and out of the speakers in lieu of a DJ's soundtrack - during which time a thin white curtain is pulled across the front of the stage. Then the background music stops, the lights go up, the headliners emerge, and we're off. The curtain, however, remains resolutely in place. No, not some comical 'Spinal Tap' esque instance of mechanical failure, but a deliberate ploy.

Sigur Ros, you see, could be described as pretentious - prog rock alive and well in 2005, though mercifully without capes, lyrics about wizards or the merest hint of Rick Wakeman's presence. Indeed, their innate ridiculousness has preoccupied me before. So how to explain, justify or defend this tactic?

In dramatic terms it creates a literal "fourth wall" between them and their audience that can be ceremoniously removed at a later point.

It perhaps signifies a recognition on the band's part that they're a fairly faceless bunch of musicians, and that it's the music itself that people are here for.

It symbolically shields the audience from the immensity and power of the first song of the set, 'Glosoli', the first track proper on new LP Takk and one which sounds like nothing so much as glacial frottage.

But perhaps most obviously it allows the band to appear as silhouettes, their form and position constantly shifting as the lights behind onstage change, at the same time as providing a "canvas" onto which additional images can be projected.

As 'Glosoli' dies away, however, the curtain draws back and we're suddenly in more intimate contact with them. That's how it stays for the remainder of the set, which is a near-seamless featherbed of stately, gently undulating, occasionally pompous post-rock illuminated by Jonsi's extraordinarily piercing vocals and his penchant for playing his guitar with a violin bow. At an hour and a half long, it's enough for most of the crowd (myself included) to get completely wrapped up in, but perhaps lacking the spark of sheer excitement that might ignite fervent belief in the atheistic onlooker.

That is, until the encore. As the band walk out onto the stage, the curtain edges across once more and they launch into 'Untitled #8', the final track from 2002's ( ). Eight minutes it takes to build to its explosive climax, all restraint now abandoned in spectacular fashion as the drummer, freed from the straitjacket of the main set, attacks his kit with violent relish and a strobed flurry of projected images strikes the curtain. It's a fireworks display a week and a half too late. It's the sort of all-out sensual assault that would put Mogwai and Spiritualized in the shade. And it's an awesome conclusion to a very fine gig.

Guilty of taking themselves too seriously? Yes. Pretentious? Probably. Mindblowing? Too damn right.


My review of Sigur Ros's Takk on the Vanity Project website.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glacial frottage? That's gotta hurt, surely?

Mind you, after BSP's 'Oh Larsen B' perhaps arctic shelf-filling is the new post-watershed olympic sport amongst our budding pop stars.

10:41 pm  

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