Sigur Rós – Valtari
With 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, Sigur Rós went pop—well, as “pop” as Sigur Rós can get while still sounding like Sigur Rós. There was still Jónsi’s hopeful-sad falsetto and the otherworldly soundscapes; it was just in a more condensed form, with many songs falling between two and three minutes. And let’s not forget Jónsi’s own solo album, Go, whose songs followed a similar template, if not exactly the same intent. Even though Sigur Rós released some compilations of their older, more experimental material to satiate fans in between albums, all signs still pointed towards the band continuing down the path toward more conventional song structure. That’s why Valtari comes as such a surprise. It’s a conscious return to the deliberate, glacial symphonies that made their reputation, with none of the summery exuberance of their recent work. With the exception of the ends of “Varúð” and “Rembihnútur,” nothing here rises above a whisper, most of it ebbing and flowing pensively. Valtari isn’t exactly a step backwards, though: It uses the formula of Ágætis byrjun and ( ) as learned through the more colorful orchestrations and arrangements of Takk…. So even if this album is short on surprises, it doesn’t exactly feel like a rehash. Ghostly choirs, music box melodies and moaning strings all float in and out of the mix, with the enigmatic production suggesting a decaying, sepia-toned film reel, particularly on “Ég anda” and the title track. At times, the album is so low-impact, it barely registers, yet it is also capable of some truly transportive moments. “Varðeldur”‘s piano-led melody quivers with so much sadness and nostalgia that it nearly induces tears after just a couple measures; “Varúð” rewrites “Hoppípolla” as a war cry, while “Fjögur píanó” sends off the album on a note of something that resembles hope. Valtari is ultimately one of the band’s lesser works, but it says something about Sigur Rós’ skills that even when they’re treading water, their music can still be striking and unique.