Young children can be mesmerised by almost anything: ants, mud, the rain, a man in a purple dinosaur costume singing songs. Adults, not so much. Between all the Snapchats, news alerts, and seeing what’s happening everywhere but here, there’s just no time to focus. Something’s always pulling us out of the present, to the extent that mindfulness, a potential antidote to all that distraction, is now a £4-billion industry.
But there are still a few things other than meditation apps that can cut through the clatter of life. Like Sigur Rós. Not only can the Reykjavík trio entrance and silence 3,600 people for a solid two hours, they’re capable of filling them with a childlike sense of wonder.
“How are they doing that?” is the unspoken question echoing through the Eventim Apollo as Jon Thor “Jónsi” Birgisson, Georg Holm, and Orri Pall Dyrason unfurl one opus after another, each more glorious than the last. And all they have at their disposal are a drum kit, a bass guitar, some keyboards and synths, a guitar, a cello bow, a voice that’s almost always described as ethereal, and the element of surprise.
In the “seat-of-your-pants” spirit of their early days, when they “formed and re-formed” new songs “live in front of people, night after night” before entering the recording studio, four of the dreamscapes they perform tonight have yet to appear on an album. The swirling show opener Á (“river”), led by Dyrason’s stately beat, was first debuted in concert a little over a year ago. And the tranquil Niður, which has the drummer shift to keyboards halfway through, and lush, ambient Varða, with Holm and Dyrason each taking turns on keys and bass, only started appearing on setlists in May.
Despite their recent addition, all three songs fit seamlessly into the night’s first set, which focuses on the Icelandic group’s quieter, more restrained material, like Valtari’s elegiac Ekki múkk, Takk’s exquisite Glósóli, and ( )’s pensive E-bow.
Likewise, the more dramatic Óveður, released as a single last summer and performed from behind one of those video screens you can see through, is the perfect beginning to a second set big on sturm, drang, and crescendos. Takk… standout Sæglópur, for instance, begins with the trio (now partially obscured by visuals of stars) playing assorted synths at the back of the stage, before stepping forward to pick up their usual instruments as the song transforms into the audio equivalent of the fireball growing behind them.
Ný Batterí too begins with relative restraint, Birgisson replacing the original’s brass section intro with guitar feedback created by furious bowing of the strings on his customised Ibanez PF200, until the familiar bassline and vocal melody begin to turn up the intensity. That steady build, and sudden release, of tension is a hallmark of the group’s biggest songs and is showcased again on the 12-minute epic Popplagið that, after steadily ratcheting up the urgency, ends the night in an apocalyptic maelstrom of guitar, bass, drums, and strobe lighting, followed, suddenly, by silence and darkness.
That ferocious finale, epitomised by Birgisson kicking over his mic stand, is one of the few reminders that, despite all the synonyms for “otherworldly” used to describe their music, the three members of Sigur Rós really like to rock. It’s also there during Festival’s seismic conclusion, as the frontman steps away from the microphone to unleash some aggressive rockstar-style power chords. And it’s there in the smiles he and Holm share when they’re just about to unleash yet another tidal wave designed to stun, silence, and mesmerise.
Live review of Sigur Rós @ Eventim Apollo by Nils van der Linden on 21st September 2017. Photos by Geoffrey D’Unienville.