Sunday, May 16, 2010

Don't Mind A Bit Of Sugar: A review of Sigur Rós frontman's solo album and show

After witnessing a truly magnificent live performance by Jónsi in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, I just had to share my thoughts on one of the greatest things to ever come out of Iceland.

Jónsi (nee Jón Þór Birgisson) is one-forth of the the post-rock band Sigur Rós. They're one of those bands who, while very popular in certain circles, are still relatively unknown to most people. That could have something to do with their “foreign language” status, but what some people don't realize is that they've very likely already heard some Sigur Rós. What made that scene in The Life Aquatic so poignant and beautiful? Sigur Rós' “Starálfur,” that's what. Their music has also been featured in episodes of CSI (pick one version, I think they've played in all three). It's just that kind of music – ambient yet cinematic. With one long sustained note they can create a whole atmosphere within which your imagination is invited to run wild. That's Sigur Rós.

Jónsi is different. Where Sigur Rós is slow, deliberate, and contemplative, Jónsi is light and unabashedly exuberant. Where Sigur Rós mostly sticks to Icelandic or Vonlenska (aka Hopelandic, a gibberish language invented by Jónsi to go along with some Sigur Rós' tunes), Go, Jónsi's first solo record is mostly sung in English. Sigur Rós = 13 minute swooning epics. Go = maxes out at 5:21.

Go is a very different album from most Sigur Rós works. It's upbeat and focuses more on the vocals than on swooning instrumental breaks (though only a little bit more). Sigur Rós albums invite their listeners to lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling for hours while they contemplate how everything in the world is made up of carbon, or some equally psychedelic shit like that – or at least that's how I feel when I listen to Ágætis Byrjun.

I don't mean to linger on the differences between the two, I just want to explain the shock I had when, after having become used to hearing a certain sound from an artist, I got blind-sided by something so different, but just as exciting.

I've read some reviews criticizing the album for its sugary disposition, but, really, that's what the album is about. It's up-beat and happy – there are kids making out, people tying strings to clouds, and boys climbing endless trees. A little sugar isn't for everyone, and it isn't usually for me either, but when it comes wrapped up in such a musically sophisticated package I can't help but love it.

While the album is great on its own, the stage show was on a completely different level. I've never seen a Sigur Rós performance before, but I've heard that it's much like this one was – entrancing. The audience treated the break-neck drumming and staccato vocal samplings as though it was something to revere, staring at the stage in rapt attention. There were a couple of people who got into the more danceable tracks, jumping around and really getting into it (I couldn't help bobbing up and down during “Animal Arithmetic”), but for the most part people were just trying to keep their eyes and ears open, taking in everything they could.

London's 59 Productions were contracted to create the stage show for this tour. They worked for months on this project, combining the massive structure that served as part of a ruined building (specifically, a burnt down taxidermy shop), projections, light, and, as their website says, “magic” to create a theatrical experience for Jónsi's audience. They took elements from the album (nature and animals play a large part in both the album and the stage show) and fused them with the music to create a loose storyline that unveiled itself throughout the show.

I really have to single out the projections/set design as the thing that most distinguishes this tour from others I've seen. It is a grand stage show without any of the emotional distance that larger bands in larger venues force upon their audiences. The attention to detail and creativity displayed in each song segment elevated the experience, and got me wondering why more musicians don't incorporate more visual elements into their live shows.

The animations for “Kolnidur” were particularly striking. It started with an owl alighting on the limb of a tree seen just beyond the ruined building at the back of the stage. A wolf gradually strode into view at the left of the stage. The songs natural intensity became twofold when paired with the dramatic chase scene playing out between the wolf and a deer, which culminated at the exact moment that song had its own climax when the wolf pounced and was met by the antlers of a buck. The animals were beautifully rendered in black and white, resembling sketches in a flip-book.

I've often spoken about how during the couple times I've seen the Toronto band Holy Fuck perform live I was impressed by their ability to piece the tracks together onstage using various electronics and items that in any other context wouldn't be considered an instrument (it's like watching a rube goldberg machine only with casiotones and film reels in place of marbles and dominoes). The Jónsi performance had the same feel to it. At one point the band huddled together in a circle in the middle of the stage for a little xylophone jam session. The whole concert had the satisfying feel of witnessing several high calibre artists just gelling. þorvaldur þorvaldsson on drums was a marvel to watch (I especially loved the “found” percussion instruments he used, which included a briefcase as a bass drum). Everybody was on the same page, and the energy was high (despite them having already been on the road for a month).

And, of course, ask anyone who's seen him live and they'll tell you that the most impressive aspects of the performance was Jónsi's immaculate voice. His soaring falsetto never wavered or showed any signs of wear. Even without the fascinating visuals and crashing instrumentals his voice alone would have made the concert.

So it turns out that I had a lot to say about Jónsi. I really enjoy the album, and I enjoyed the live show even more. More concerts should be like this one. I would definitely recommend checking out a Jónsi or Sigur Rós show in the future if you haven't already. Hopefully they can stay in small-ish venues as well – always the best way to see any band live. Until they decide to come back I'll just be here with my headphones on, contemplating the structural makeup of the universe.


Paste has an interesting article this month on Jónsi. It goes into some of the background of how the album got made. Nothing super-enlightening, which is unfortunate, but it's still cool to know how Nico Muhly (the excellent contemporary classical music composer who worked on Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, and has some credits with the great Philip Glass as well) got involved with the project, and what his contributions meant to the finished product.

I'd recommend checking out 59 Productions' website for some excellent behind-the-scenes video on the making of Jónsi's Go tour. You can also see some live performance footage here, although I haven't found anything yet that compared to actually seeing the album performed live.

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