Icelandic ethereal rock group Sigur Rós paid a visit to Philadelphia’s Mann Center this past Friday in support of their most recent record, Kveikur. Fans were treated to a beautiful evening, and more importantly, an incredible musical experience. Sigur Rós is unique in countless ways; the lyrics are (mostly) in Icelandic, they have complete brass and string sections, and their frontman, Jónsi Birgisson bows a guitar on nearly every one of their songs. What struck me about their live performance was the dichotomous nature of their music rhythmically, harmonically, vocally and compositionally. It is not often that I enter a concert with a simple interest in an artist’s work and leave craving more, though this was the case with Sigur Rós.
The band opened their set with the atmospheric “Yfirborð”, a song which, at its beginning, seems to burrow its way through a sonic underground before reaching its cadenced and rhythmic coda, all the while retaining the modulated timbre of a telephone call. They moved on to what might have been the most powerful song of the evening, “Brennisteinn.” This track, if none other, best captures the more driving and forceful sound they’ve introduced with their most recent record, Kveikur, and hit all the right notes in the live environment. The aforementioned multi-faceted nature of their music couldn’t have been more present; dissonance met melodiousness and dynamic rhythms were juxtaposed to moments of serene string interludes.
Another song that stood out was “Olsen Olsen”, a tune that appears on their first record, and whose string/brass refrain evoked an uncanny feeling of gratification. A couple songs later, I was delighted to hear “Stormur”, another track off Kveikur that exemplifies Birgisson’s ability to use his voice as no less than an instrument; perhaps it is that I, being an English speaker, take lyricism out of the equation, or that the instrumentality of his voice is somewhat of a mission statement of his. I couldn’t help but appreciate even Birgisson’s inward breaths as being of a deliberate musical essence.
Immediately following “Stormur” was “Sæglópur”, a song so formidable that I was convinced we were underwater, and appropriately so, the song’s title being Icelandic for “seafarer”. It was this power to instill emotion and feeling by which I was captivated listening to Sigur Rós’s music. It was their dynamic and compelling sound, Birgisson’s beautiful and mellifluous voice and bowed guitar that acted as a distinct yet completely organic sounding tie-in between songs that have won me over.
Opening for Sigur Rós was Julianna Barwick, whose avant-garde chordal arrangements were, at the very least, interesting. However, the ubiquity and lack of dimension in her music ended up being a real downfall, as a lot of the crowd seemed to lose interest relatively quickly. That is not to say, however, that I did not have an incredible time. In a mere few hours, my perception of a band was changed entirely for the better. Sigur Rós, you’re doing it right!