Sigur Rós - ( ) [MCA - 2002]Ever wonder what it would be like to trek along a desolate path strewn with leaves and other natural debris on a dark and mysterious night in the middle of a snow-covered forest in Iceland? The wind nipping at your back while you trudge on trying to find a warm retreat. Maybe this doesn't sound like an ideal scenario for any sane individual, but thanks to the four, very talented individuals in Iceland's premier post-rock-cum-shoegazer outfit, Sigur Rós, you can get as close to the experience as possible without actually having to freeze your posterior off.
The enigmatically titled third full-length album from Sigur Rós, ( ), shows the band making a forward progression while simultaneously acknowledging their humble, yet at the same time ambitious beginnings as documented on their debut outing, Von. This time around the band opted for a more live feel that is quite a contrast from 2001's extremely polished and lushly extravagant opus Agætis Byrjun. According to the band, the material contained on ( ) is in no way new, and it's been played regularly at their shows for over the past 2-3 years.
The material seems a bit looser and more delicate, allowing the band to intersperse some of the most haunting, yet subtle ambience they've used thus far. The opening track -- which has a working title Vaka -- utilizes a backing string arrangement (which somewhat reminds me of Kronos Quartet's more laid-back moments,) accompanied by a sparse piano melody. The vocals on this particular track are a bit more subdued and not the typical high-pitched, stratospheric wail that Jonsi usually employs. This doesn't last long though, once the second track begins, the vocals return to the more-than-familiar wail that is quite otherworldly, and at it's extreme resembles a dolphin's mating call (well, maybe not that high, but close enough [maybe a chipmunk in heat?].) All pseudo-comedic pretense aside, Jonsi has one of the most unique vocal deliveries in rock music.
The remainder of the album sticks to a very slow tempo with a vibe that conveys sadness and longing; it also has a very cold and desolate feel to it (often times perfectly capturing the cold climate of iceland and the winter-y North in general,) and in the tradition of Sigur Ros's contemporaries such as Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Mogwai and A Silver Mt. Zion, the music swells with bombastic aplomb, but the crescendos and climaxes aren't quite as explosive. The album also has a sound that slightly reminds me of Slowdive's "Souvlaki" and My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" (being that the use of dynamics is tempered with warm washes of feedback and sparse dissonance.) The album closes with a track that is starkly dissimilar to the vast majority of their work, and more than does it's job sticking out like a sore thumb (but not in a bad way.) It starts out and builds up like an ordinary Sigur Rós track, but once the epic (spanning 11 minutes) reaches the 6 minute mark, the band switches gears and raises the intensity tenfold with a simmering tribal-esque drum cascade, layered vocals, frenetically strummed guitars, and a deep, resounding bass line to top it all off. This is the closest that the band has ever gotten to sounding like GYBE!, and they pull it off extremely well.
Now here's the million dollar question: Is the album as good as Agætis Byrjun? Well, yes and no. Yes, it's aesthetically the same band, musically, and because of that they come close to capturing the beauty of the aforementioned album; no, because it doesn't as much of an instant appeal because of it's more esoteric vibe. When all is said and done, ( ) is an album that takes a while to fully sink in, but once it does, it sits very comfortably next to it's predecessors, Agætis Byrjun and Von. Just give the album time and you'll discover that it's extremely rewarding, if not moreso than their efforts of the past.
Highly recommended for fans the genres referenced in this review, or anyone looking to explore the post-rock genre (although the album may be a bit hard to digest if you're fairly new to the genre in general.)
Oh, and if you get the chance to catch Sigur Rós on their current tour supporting ( ), drop everything you're doing at once and purchase a ticket. You'll thank me later.Jeff Jacobus