Concert Reviews
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Live Review: Sigur Rós at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion (4/2)

on April 03, 2013, 5:12pm

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The band’s 7th LP, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, translates to, “With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly.”  That’s both true and not true because, yes, Sigur Rós songs can be very long by some standards, but the band lives for the ending. Each note that happens in the first minute of the song is in service of the last minute of the song. That’s what Sigur Rós do best. They can’t wait to build to that climax and then release, no matter how long they keep you waiting. These linear compositions throughout their eight (if you include the new material tonight, nine) albums are meant to take you somewhere  — to some other point than where you started.

Before they began their journey, Daniel Lopatin presented a counterpoint to the destinations of Sigur Rós. As Oneohtrix Point Never, Lopatin unearths the gauzy synths of the ’80s and repurposes them in Brian Eno On Land-scapes. For about 30 minutes, Lopatin played what I’m pretty sure was mostly new material behind a 40ft tall scrim, which didn’t help his dense and seemingly directionless music connect to the chatty arena of people who were here for the cinematic crescendos. Even in a small club you’d be hard pressed to interest passersby in the aesthetics of “timbral fascism” or “hauntological ambiance” without a yawn or an eye-roll or some combination of the two. But his rudderless, hyper-specific mini-explorations were focused if you gave them focus — especially a particularly visceral piece near the end that paired some of OPN’s more aggressive arpeggiator runs with an incessant ultra high-frequency pitch that made the violins from Psycho sound like 808 bass drums in comparison.

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The giant scrim stayed up when Sigur Rós took the stage — wearing their bespoke, tasseled shirts as is the custom for the band — and formed a little cloth pod for the band to play in. You couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for “a beginning” than playing inside of a shell of fabric with the lights making little veiny drawings on the curtain, flashing silhouettes of the band members on the front. But just as the big climax bit in the second song “Ný Batterí”, the curtain fell and there was Jonsí front and center, sawing away at his guitar with a cello bow alongside his bandmates, three string players, and three horn players. The sound exploded into the arena.

One thing that makes this journey so absolutely worthwhile is that Jonsí’s voice is perfect. Of this there is no doubt. Maybe it’s my American ears, but hearing all these foreign consonants paired with familiar vowels made me listen even closer to the words I can’t understand. American singing sounds so flat and brutish in comparison to Icelandic, which coils out of Jonsí’s mouth like silk ribbon. When he balanced on that high note in “Festival”, the crowed cheered — cheered! — and then stopped because they wanted to hear him sing it. When he finally let go of the note, a guy next to me said to himself with unbelievable reverence, “Damn, dude. Damn.”

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The band played four new songs from their forthcoming album KveikurYou’ve heard “Brennisteinn” before (possibly live, since they were playing it last year, too) and while it is one of the heaviest tracks they’ve put out since their debut Von, there was something stiff about it in performance. That sub-bass synth line sounded robotic and sterile against the layered music that came before it with classic Rós hits like “Vaka” and “Hoppípolla”. Another new one, “Kveikur”, rang a little more true and picked up some of those post-industrial, groove-metal scraps that “Brennisteinn” left behind.

And while it was nice to hear this new material, like the mid-tempo “Hrafntinna” textured with all manners of auxiliary percussion and a horn chorale outro, it was the old standbys that really took the crowd somewhere. Aided by an stage-length panoramic LCD screen upstage that displayed a new video for each song, Sigur Rós would wave their wand (or cello bow, as it were) and in the middle of “E-Bow” there I was in a field of grain. Or look! There are fireworks going off and “Olsen Olsen” is playing and the band is jamming and I never want this moment to end because I’m on a cloud of consonant noise. Those clutch post-rock anthems, bolstered by a well-rehearsed and dynamic band, make it the easiest thing in the world to suspend your disbelief.

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I kept thinking about the band Swans, and how Sigur Rós might be their pious younger brother. Both bands get off on noise explosions and aim for that euphoria that comes with exalting repetition and crescendos and the emotions that lie therein. Whenever Jonsí would be at his climax, he’d hunch over, his guitar slung so low you’d think he played for a nu-metal band, and he’d be just lost. Much of the pristine and gossamer sounds the band so famously creates on their records is crumpled-up pretty hard in the live show.

The big encore, “Glósóli” and “Popplagið” were the two most by-the-numbers, bottle-up-and-explode tunes of the night but they didn’t feel rote. By that point, the crowd was as malleable as could be and even if the song went pretty predictably from point A to point B there was hardly a complaint in the world because when they would finally get to the Elysium moment — that point where you’re suspended above it all —  it’s impossible to not see it through to the end.

Photography by Jeremy D. Larson.

Setlist:
Yfirborð
Ný Batterí
Hrafntinna
Vaka
Sæglópur
Fljótavík
E-bow
Varúð
Hoppípolla
Með Blóðnasir
Kveikur
Olsen Olsen
Festival
Brennisteinn
Encore:
Glósóli
Popplagið

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