It’s become a running joke of sorts, that with every touching shot of a polar bear raising her infants, trudging across miles of newly-landed snow, or for every dramatic visual landscape that graces our HD television sets, there’s room for a Sigur Rós song. Nature programmes and their kinship with ‘Hoppípolla’; it’s a norm of wildlife footage and heart-stopping montage; a standardised accompaniment for all things beautiful. In a way, it’s also sapped away at the appeal of Sigur Rós - we’ve almost forgotten just how capable these Icelandic giants are of creating great works of art in the shape of their albums.
A running battle remains among fans of the band; one embittered camp suggesting that 2008’s ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’, alongside Jónsi Birgisson’s own full-length, were equal convicts to the nature programmes in terms of undermining everything Sigur Rós had put their name to previously. ‘( )’ and to a greater extent, ‘Ágætis byrjun’, were masterful works of unbelieveable detail. The group’s most recent album, however, leaned more towards immediacy, with lead track ‘Gobbledigook’s tribal percussions and sheer lack of length (consider most of the ban’s songs step over the seven minute mark) spelling out an entirely fresh, at times unconvincing approach.
It’s as if we’re witnessing a return to methods of old with ‘Valtari’. Don’t label it a retreat: It still remains starkly different to ‘Takk…’ and its predecessors. But in come the seven minute-long songs, the sparse arrangements, the breathtaking strings. There’s great synergy to these songs - something that was entirely lacking from the previous record - and while the likes of ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’ can’t disguise their accessibility, each song is desperate to showcase beauty, the unique kind of beauty that sets Sigur Rós apart from virtually every other band on this special little planet.
Bar the driving crescendo of ‘Varúð’, this record is almost completely stripped of percussion. Thumping drums and grand orchestras helped to produce ‘Hoppípolla’ and friends, but said components are nowhere to be seen, here. From the outset, sleepy, lullaby-like pieces flow into one another, creating a grand body of work that rarely breaks out of its comfy shell. Lead single ‘Ekki múkk’ is an undoubted centrepiece; a goosebump-inducing composition of great subtlety - it constantly flirts with the possibility of breaking into a clamorous surge, but the steady musicianship instead opts for a vow of peace.
While previous records are steeped in triumphant ascensions and hair-raising climaxes, ‘Valtari’ merely basks in the very essence of prettiness. Not since the dreamy opening half of ‘( )’ will you feel so close to Jónsi’s alien commands. This is perhaps Sigur Rós’ most human-sounding album to date, too. Prepped for intimate nights with loved ones and exhausting journeys back home; it’s an album that ditches the dramatic and brings in the calm. Beautiful landscapes will have to wait for another ‘Hoppípolla’.
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