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Published: 2008/09/27
by Greg Gargiulo

Sigur RUnited Palace Theatre, New York, NY- 9/18

They could be singing of lurid objects or disheartening concepts and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. To a new listener, theoretically, their songs could be about anything and the actual content of the Icelandic lyrics would have no bearing on the intrinsically pleasant nature of Sigur Rsquo; music. Though in actuality the words that fit together with their instrumentation range rather broadly, it’s in the melodious fusing of the warm, soul-seeping musical arrangements and lead singer J Birgisson’s soaring falsetto vocals that make Sigur Ruch a transcendent creation. To kick off their international tour, a two-night stint at Manhattan’s United Palace Theatre gave Americans a rare chance to feel the sheer power of Rsquo; live act, every bit as true to their studio accomplishments as one could imagine, only with an engulfing quality impossible outside of a live setting.

Translating an intricate act to stage, especially one heavily based on volatile vocal abilities and rich in multi-layered nuance, is a most difficult task that runs a world of risks for some. An extreme understatement would be to say Sigur Rails this translation. Though not ones to necessarily improvise per se, each of their songs flowed with a toned persona as if it had been polished, shined and injected with a generous dose of steroids. The performance opened the floodgates with a pounding protrusion of sonorous sound, inundating the listeners with a body-tingling sensation akin to a walk through the Red Sea with a protective shield permitting only the passage of music.

Sigur Rsquo; newest album, Meeyrum viilum endalaust [With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly] finds the quartet distancing themselves slightly from the lengthy, orchestral, minimalist tendencies in their earlier works in exchange for a more upbeat, alternative rock-based formula. Breathing life into about half the new tracks, plus renditions of many classic favorites, seldom were portions in which you didn’t feel as though you could reach up and actually touch the noise. Unfortunately, the crowd appeared to enjoy the show much better without doing so, or anything even remotely similar, instead remaining sedentary, stationary and contemplative, much like terra cotta soldiers awaiting instructions. Granted, Sigur Rs a long way from inciting head banging, fist pumping or any other sorts of outlandish behavior, but their sound does inspire movement at times, and this crowd simply wouldn’t have any. Noticing this utter absence of motion, J almost demanded all to stand up for “Gobbledygook,” the final song before the encore which also saw a procession of drummers come to stage, marching in place to the celebratory embrace. While it would’ve helped had this cue come earlier, the seated transpirings up to it were justified by the voluminous outpourings by the band and their chill-raising effects.

The epic “Hopplla,” with Kjarri Sveinsson’s now familiar opening piano progression, has emerged as their most recognizable piece, as it’s been featured in a number of commercials and trailers for its grand scale orchestrations that connote something of a majestic and spectacular nature. Fading out at about the midway point, it resurfaced with a triumphant adjoining of strings and brass, then almost died down entirely before segueing into its remainder composition, “Mesir,” which established a pure, excitable tranquility as textured voices wrapped themselves around the binding bass of Goggi Hand still-ascending keys.

A number of aspects of Sigur Rsquo; approach to instrumentation are unconventional to say the least. Also manning guitar duties, J doesn’t strum with a pick or even his fingers, but forcefully utilizes a cello bow in the same grain as Jimmy Page on a few choice Led Zeppelin songs. The method creates a long extended reverb that fluidly navigates in and out of the other elements, and from time to time resembles the quality of a toned-down, cacophonous pedal steel. Goggi assumed the role of bass on “Hafsdquo; by tapping strings with a drumstick, paving the way for a rare hard rocker as it eventually lends to drummer Orri P D picking up the pace incrementally, until leaving only the lingering remains of Kjarri’s jolly flute. Instances such as these had a raw transporting grasp, unmistakably sending currents of an untarnished Icelandic countryside, ancient traditional festivals rooted in the rich volcanic soil abounding as denizens rejoice for the beauty of their land. Others, like the gentle opening combo of “Svefn-g-englar” and “Gli” may have caused one to travel back in their own internal timelines, to the earliest periods of their life to a place where memories are inaccessible. “Svefn” conveyed what would be mental preparations of a newborn finally being brought into this world, while “Gli” served as a twinkling lullaby, comforting the newcomer with sedating bells and cheerful keys, only to be overcome by grueling guitars, a crash course, perhaps, in the chaos that awaits later on. The story may be different for each listener, but the narrative voice remains a constant, the product of a bright and beautiful musical being. Whether translating and dissecting the words to estimate artistic intention or weaving one’s own personal tale, the inherent eloquence and picturesque invocations of Rsquo; sound alone is straight bliss in a universal language.

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