Sigur Ros' latest musical landscape grows monotonous

by Mignon Lamia | 11/12/02 6:00am

Out of the mystery and magic of Iceland comes Sigur Ros' newest album, "( )." Just as the land they call home remains a mystery to many Americans, the band's decision to leave the album and all of its songs untitled seems strange at first. Who do these guys think they are?

Sigur Ros was formed when Jon Por Birgisson on vocals and guitar, Georg Holm on bass and Agust Ovar Gunnarsson on drums came together as teenagers in Reykjavik in 1994. Like Bjork and other Icelanders who came into the international scene before them, this highly experimental band has brought the mystery and magic of their homeland to audiences around the world.

Their first album, "Von," meaning "hope," is still not very wel known internationally, but is representative of the band's unique style, with the strange falsetto of their lead vocalist Jonsi and his use of a cello bow to play the guitar.

After replacing their drummer and taking on a new keyboardist, Sigur Ros emerged onto the international music scene with the release of their second album, "Agaetis Byrjun," meaning "A Good Beginning."

A good beginning it was. The album was hyped by the press in Britain and the United States and was picked up and distributed by the independent British label Fat Cat, making the music accessible to many outside Iceland. By 2000 the band was playing with Montreal's Godspeed You Black Emperor! and opening for Radiohead's European tour.

While they were in Iceland for the first few months of 2002, working on their next album, they became more and more well known, especially in the United States. When "Agaetis Byrjun" was picked up by a United States label, features on the band came out in the in Entertainment Weekly and Wired magazines.

After all the hype from the press and after winning the 2001 Shortlist Prize, a newly created award recognizing lesser-known artists, much was expected from the band and their third, untitled album.

Fitting with the mysterious and puzzling nature of the music they create, the members of this band are not men of so many words, nor do they place much emphasis on the importance of meaningful lyrics. Georg Holm, their bassist and spokesperson, says they enjoy it when listeners hear lyrics that don't exist. They want their audience to find their own meaning in the music. The band's web site even features a page with fans' own hearings of the lyrics.

Sigur Ros' third album is the first to use English in its lyrics, mixed in with the "Hopelandish" language, made up by their guitarist and vocalist Jonsi, that the band normally sings in. Holm says the "babbling" is not meant to make sense in the usual way, just as Jonsi's falsetto voice, heard in their early music and still pervading much of the new album, is not a vehicle for these lyrics, but another layer on top of the many layers of sound in each of the eight tracks.

These many layers can get rather confusing, especially in the final two tracks. So much is going on at the end of these two songs, overlapping and stringing together of various drum beats and striking increases in the intensity of all the instrumentals, that they leave the listener feeling anxious and waiting for a finale that never comes. The earlier songs on the album make one thirst for variety and an end to the monotonous, somber tones evoking images of church organs and endless mirages appearing over a flat horizon at dawn. Despite this, the overwhelming chaos of these final two tracks is more unsettling than energizing or inspiring.

The average track length is about eight minutes, with the shortest lasting six minutes, and the longest coming in at a full 13 minutes. The average American listener is not used to this kind of demand on the attention span.

Though such lengths would be warranted if the songs varied enough in their tone to keep an audience engaged, the album does no such thing -- to its own detriment. The songs lack emotional variety not only as individual pieces, but also as a whole.

The first and third tracks are marked by their emphasis on the somewhat dissonant tones of the piano, and the repetition of the same melodies proves taxing to the audience after five minutes. Though the attempts to mix things up on the second track using what sound like the scratchy underwater recordings of whales make the song interesting for a bit, the same dismal mood and slow rhythm of the song as a whole does not give the audience a respite from the overall tone of the album.

With the possible exception of the straining emotion at the end of track seven, and a few spurts of energy expressed through Jonsi's falsetto throughout, the feeling of the music remains the same throughout, leaving the listener subdued and unable to appreciate its uniue qualites.

What is so unique about Sigur Ros' music is that it has a feeling of antiquity and modernism at the same time. The drum beats featured in tracks 4, 7 and 8, the dark organ-like tones and lyrics evoking images of the natural world hark back to a past age when music and chants were used to worship natural forces.

Layered over these tones is the sometimes nasal and sometimes falsetto voice of Jonsi, which sounds much like those of many current vocalists, most strikingly Fran Healy of Scotland's Travis. It's too bad that what starts out as a refreshing, new and interesting sound is so dulled by repetition that its emotional impact is gone by the end of the first track.

As a peek into the music of the mysterious and far-off land of Iceland, Sigur Ros' new album should be taken in small doses. If you do pick it up, know that it will require close attention and a real desire to figure out what the music has to offer. But have faith that there are refreshing tidbits to be appreciated -- if you actively seek them out.