SIGUR RÓS’ STEAM ROLLER DRONES, PLINKS AND PLONKS
Our special sneak preview of ‘Valtari’ is RIGHT HERE
20.4.2012 Words by Haukur S. Magnússon
We recently had a chance to sit down with Sigur Rós’ latest long player ‘Valtari’
(“Steamroller”), which is due out on May 28. Since anticipation for the record is high
we thought we would relay some of what we heard, so as to help you prepare for the
imminent drop. And we can confirm that while ‘Valtari’ is quite a departure from
their previous albums, it is at the same time very unmistakably the work of Sigur Rós.
The album—which is currently being previewed in its entirety on Icelandair’s in-
flight entertainment system—contains eight compositions clocking at just under an
hour (none of the tracks come in at under five minutes, a few pass the eight minute
mark). The promotional graphics that have been made public (see for instance
on Sigur Rós’ website) as well as the track titles (see our translations here) betray an opaque and murky, almost eerie, calm; the band pictures are heavily processed and filtered while the track names relay an air of withdrawal and introversion.
Judging by those promotional materials (including the extremely understated video
for first track “Ekki múkk”) one can ascertain that this new product is far removed from the airy and explosive pop-joy emitted on their last LP, ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’, (which was in itself quite a departure from ‘Takk’).
This is confirmed by listening through the album. The first thing you realize is
that this is not a ‘conventional Sigur Rós album’. However it should be noted that
Sigur Rós have never been a ‘conventional rock band’. Challenging the listener
and stretching his or her ideas of what the band is about and should sound like has
indeed been built into the core of Sigur Rós ever since the days of ‘Von’. Each
subsequent record has marked somewhat of a shift in sound and atmosphere (some
more than others) so you could argue that a new Sigur Rós record is ‘conventionally
Here is a blow-by-blow of the tracks:
Ég anda (6:15)
The album is off to a slow and subdued start, setting the atmosphere for an album
that is ultimately... slow and subdued. The song sort of creeps in until Jónsi’s voice
suddenly appears at the three-thirty mark. As is often the case with Sigur Rós, the
vocals are drowned in the music, so discerning lyrical snippets is no mean feat. Sigur Rós’ fans will be taking their time with the task over the next few months.
Overall the track is relaxed and quite beautiful. There are no drums or beats to speak
of (which turns out to be true of almost all the tracks), yet a sort of magical mood is
created. With regards to ‘Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust’, it might as well be a
completely different band playing.
Ekki múkk (7:44)
“Ekki múkk” is the first song made public and should be familiar to the fans by now
(it will probably not score a lot of airplay, any more than the album’s other tracks).
This snaps, crackles and pops along, offering some nicely drone-y drones, like a radio
transmission from a distant universe (or a movie soundtrack). Expect to see it in lots
of student film projects and Iceland tourism videos in coming years.
Vintage-sounding or prepared pianos seem to be a running theme on this
album. “Ekki múkk” effortlessly segues into “Varúð”, which with its undertones of
grandiose symphonic dissonance seems like it would sound wonderful in a space like
Harpa’s Eldborg hall—all reverb and distant orchestra. If you listen really closely you
can even hear vague wafts of Jónsi’s signature violin/ e-bow guitar under there. The
sound of a children’s choir drifts in around halfway through, and some semblance
of drumming even appears (for the first time on the album) which then turns into a
big and powerful build-up that eventually fades out. It’s all very dramatic, somehow
removed from the Sigur Rós of old, yet it is clear that no other band could have done
The fourth song on the album also happens to be the fourth song in a row that sorts of
drifts into existence, with a few piano plonks and plinks and some harmonious strings
eventually entering the fray. But when you think it’s going to be more of the same,
by god, some bass guitar appears in there! The bass’s melody evokes warm emotion
while a tittering violin dominates the high frequencies.
Just when you think it’s another jam piece, Jónsi’s singing comes in at full force
around three minutes in and the song starts sounding more traditional (more like
a ‘proper tune’) than anything that preceded it. It sounds all kinds of beautiful, with
Jónsi’s lyrics seemingly offering an inspiring message of hope and consolation “I
will survive this. I will start again,” he sings in Icelandic over a rhythm that sounds
vaguely like someone drumming on a table (during class).
The title of this one means “dead calm”. Some vocal manipulations drag us into
the tune, then Jónsi start’s singing and a peaceful scene is set. “Heimur hljóðlátur,
hreyfist ei hár á höfði” the lyrics go (“A quiet world, not a hair stirs...”), evoking
notions of countryside early mornings just before world awakens. It feels like the
band is yearning for simpler times, free from iPads and distraction. Dramatic and
calm, the track definitely lives up to its name, transforming into a drone before
ultimately fading away into...
...which is also a big droney drone of a song. Some plinks, some plonks, a little Jónsi
falsetto. The melodies on this album are barely discernible at times. But perhaps it
rewards repeated listening. One definitely gets the feeling that the fans will love it.
Just some piano plonking, ma’am.
This is the album’s longest track. Indeed, it is long and droning and full of minor
chords and it pretty much sounds like the rest of the album. A sad drift. It’s very
distinctly Sigur Rós, but it didn't grab me like I wanted it to? I think I had grown distracted at this point, losing
connection. It is a long album that's maybe best taken in bits (and I will try that later, when I get a copy).
Fjögur píanó (7:50)
This last track starts off with proper piano playing before evolving into a drone.
Needs a closer listen.
As mentioned above, ‘Valtari’ is quite a departure for Sigur Rós’, yet much in the
spirit of the band. Whether this is a good thing is as of yet indeterminable, since the
one thing that can be claimed with any certainty after giving it a once-over is that a
couple of more listens under optimal conditions are needed.
I’ll want some time with this album and a pair of headphones, that’s for sure.