Review by Jason Lymangrover
After floating in the same cirrus clouds for a decade, it would seem that the time has come for a change. Not to say that the lulling orchestral swells or Jon Birgisson's schoolboy falsetto have lost any of their magic over time; it's just that after releasing 40-some similar-sounding songs with undecipherable lyrics, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate one from the next. However, Hvarf/Heim isn't the album to mark a musical departure for Sigur Ros. The bandmembers show no real sign of abandoning their style, so it seems understandable that they would want to show fans another side of themselves. Disc one, Hvarf, is a five-track collection of rarities from their vaults. The handful of tracks doesn't quite make for a fulfilling full-length, but with two of the songs almost hitting the ten-minute mark, the disc's entirety feels much longer than a mere EP. Consistently sprawling and lunar, the songs would feel right at home on Takk... or ( ). The standout track, "Hljomalind," is one of the more concise and traditional songs crafted over their journey, with the traditional instrumentation of reversed chimes and bowed guitar delays sawing textures into the fabric of the song, just before giving way to a powerful rock chorus from the mouth of a gently meowing alien. The traditional slow build is ignored for dynamics, and an unusually tangible hook hits like an old-fashioned punch to the face. The second disc, Heim, is comprised of six acoustically performed versions of favorites from their back catalog. Surprisingly, these songs don't sound remarkably different from the originals. Even without an electric guitar droning, they aren't sparse or minimal in the least, due to an additional string quartet, Amiina, filling in the gaps to create a lush soundscape. The reworkings are subtle, but the versions of "Samskeyti" and "Staralfur" remain beautiful and are slightly warmer and even more fragile than the originals. Completists will find this double-disc supplement of material appealing, and new fans wanting to get a quick feel for the band will probably enjoy it too, but the true excitement revolving around this promises to be in the accompanying release of the Heima DVD, a documentary -- with gorgeous cinematography -- that follows Sigur Ros' 2006 tour of their homeland and features music from these discs, which is perfectly fitting for a slow-motion shot of an iceberg melting in a spring sunrise.
A couple of weeks ago, the masochists at NPR posted a video clip of an attempted conversation with members of Sigur Ros, titled "When Good Interviews Go Bad." The pauses between question and answer are painfully long, the answers brief at best and completely disinterested at worst. You'd almost think the whole thing was a joke if it were the least bit funny.
Surely the Icelandic band isn't a bunch of sour pusses. Neither do they seem particularly antagonistic. But at this point one imagines the only thing tougher than speaking to Sigur Ros about well-trod subjects-- invented languages, Iceland's music scene-- is actually being in Sigur Ros and constantly getting asked questions about music all but designed to speak for itself. The group's sound is so meticulously composed, recorded, and performed it's no wonder it often evinces the same sorts of reactions to its otherworldly beauty, grace, and quiet catharsis.
Speaking of the music, it's been a while since anyone's gotten any from Sigur Ros. The group's Takk… was released in 2005, and following a tour things were relatively quiet, at least until a handful of surprise performances earlier this year. It turns out the group was indulging in the tried-and-true rock band placeholder tradition, filming itself for a concert film-cum-documentary, Heima that captures the group in its element at home. Sigur Ros have also bought itself some more time with Hvarf-Heim, a companion compilation of mostly unreleased songs and a brief acoustic set.
Sigur Ros seem the least likely candidate to go unplugged, which is one of many reasons why Heim is so remarkable. It's Sigur Ros recast as chamber music, the gorgeously sculpted dissonance of the band's material recast for strings, harmonium and far more tactile instrumentation than the usual bowed electric guitar or thundering percussion. "Samskeyti" and "Ageatis Byrjun" now sound curiously suitable for Windham Hill, and Jonsi's vocals are warmer on "Staralfur" than they are on the fully fleshed album version. Even when he hits the high notes at the end of "Vaka" it comes across a restrained counterpart to the kind of volcanic dynamism the group is typically known for. The originally hushed "Heysatan" comes off somehow more intimate, emphasizing the power of melody over meaning from a band that already often seems to prefer the amorphous cloak of mystery.
The familiar Sigur Ros we all know (and many love) is what's on display over the course of Hvarf, newly recorded versions of three never before released songs and two from the group's pre-breakthrough early days. "Salka" dates back to 2002 and supposedly almost made it onto the () album, its beguiling introductory melody hinting at "O Come All Ye Faithful" before leading to a typically grandiose string-laden coda. "Hljomalind", which the band at one point tagged the generic stand-in title "The Rock Song", is indeed more standard issue than what the band usually drums off, sounding a bit like a leftover from the Cure's Disintegration if Robert Smith sang in a falsetto and draped everything in reverb. The band essentially concedes the song's mediocrity on their site, which makes one wonder why they couldn't dust off something better.
"I Gaer", on the other hand, marks an interesting change of pace for Sigur Ros, comprising a taste of what they jokingly call their "brief prog-rock excursion." It's the closest that Sigur Ros have come to the epic Pink Floyd aesthetic some have ascribed to the group, beginning with gently chiming bells before exploding into a full-on organ, guitar and plodding drum maelstrom. It's a bit silly in its pomposity, but no less fun for it, especially from a band usually about as far from fun as an ice storm.
The last two songs on Hvarf stretch back to the group's Von era, including the title track, which has grown and changed over the course of the past 10 years. The new version is almost twice as long and far more fleshed out than the somewhat anemic album version, which the band in part attributes to the contributions of the sympathetic chamber outfit amiina and drummer Orri (who came on board after the recording of 1999's Agaetis Byrjun). The new arrangement really brings out a beauty that was only previously hinted at.
The new version of "Hafsol", on the other hand, not only makes the album version seem like a sketch at best, it actually turns out to be one of Sigur Ros' few honest to goodness anthems, ending in a collision of droning noise and a sprightly string figure before placidly fading like a sinking sunset. It's ten minutes of bliss that should keep the faithful satisfied until the group reconvenes and produces something new, resuming the road to parts unknown instead of dusting off the path that leads back to where they came from.
-Joshua Klein, November 07, 2007