It is absolutely official: Sigur Rós are the biggest rock band in Icelandic history. For their show at the Laugardalshöll arena on the closing night of Iceland Airwaves 2012, the annual music festival sponsored by the national airline, Icelandair, the group sold more than 6700 tickets – the highest box-office tally ever for a single local concert by an Icelandic band.
Many of the attendees were foreigners attending the festival. But Sigur Rós took special notice of the occasion. They thanked their supporters and neighbors here with a magnificently produced performance with cryptically magnetic screen projections, a back wall of brass and string players and a two-hour set list of their most popular heavy-art-rock spells. That included the alternating thunder-and-prayer of "Ny Batterí" from the group's 1999 international breakthrough, Agaetis byrjun; the weightless grandeur of that record's "Svefn-g-Englar," with its giveaway sonar-tone hook; and the sparely deployed sparkle and choral invention of "Hoppipolla" and "Glósóli" on 2005's Takk. The final song of the main set, "Hafsól" ("The Sun's Sea"), dated back to Sigur Rós' early trio days and their Icelandic 1997 debut, Von.
At the Crossroads
This concert marked a turning point in Sigur Rós' long run, via bowed-guitar drones, non-English lyrics and singer Jónsi Birgisson's clear, sharp falsetto, to improbable, world-class celebrity. Pianist Kjartan Sveinsson, who has been with the band since 1998, was not on stage tonight; he recently left to focus on movie scores and his work in classical composition. The group's last studio album with Sveinsson, this year's Valtari, was written after a long hiatus from recording and the road, using fragments and unfinished pieces left over from earlier albums.
That was a little too easy to tell. Compared to the hits, "Ekki Múkk" – one of only two Valtari songs in the show – couldn't help sounding like a ravishing recycling of cathedral atmospheres and Jónsi's alpine cries, at a half-heartbeat tempo. It was beautiful; it also felt overlong, a rare sin in this band's body of epics.
Fire and Brimstone
But "Ekki Múkk" was immediately followed by fresh, heavy promise. Jónsi announced, in Icelandic, that the group was about to perform a new, unrecorded song for the first time. "If you don't like it," he added, "that's what you get for asking for an encore."
"Brennisteinn" ("Brimstone") was violent, rude and irresistible: slow, mourning rock with bass tones so low and loud they rattled the floor, cut with a stubbornly delicate romanticism. It's what you might get if Sigur Rós had written Metallica's "Sad But True." But just as the end seemed near and you expected the band to stomp off into their usual ether, the rhythm changed for the faster, with bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Páll Dyrason locking in a brisk, extended techno surge. Metal and dancing are the last things you expect at a Sigur Rós gig; both suit them. They should keep it up.
A Heartfelt Thanks
The show ended, as Sigur Rós gigs always do, with "Popplagid"– "Pop Song," which it was in its own bleak way, with Jónsi's monastery-chant vocal peaking over a thicket of drones, until eruption time came. The piece is one of the oldest in the band's repertory. It was a fitting exclamation to an evening that seemed like a grateful, proud summation – and the potential beginning of everything else.
Then the whole ensemble – Jónsi, Holm, Dyrason and their eight associates on strings, brass, keyboards and extra guitars – came back to applaud the crowd. It is the way Sigur Rós have always taken their bows, sending their thanks back to the audience. It's a sweet effect, maybe a little corny. But it made warm, perfect sense here, tonight. Because they were home.