REVIEW: Sigur Rós – Valtari

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Artist: Sigur Rós
Album: Valtari
Label: XL

During the summer of 2002, I found myself feeling devoid of any emotions or feelings. I had just turned 22, dropped out of college and run away from everything in my life that mattered. Without a road map or plan for my existence, I packed my life in a duffle bag and spent the remainder of my stolen student loan money on a plane ticket to backpack in Europe for a few weeks.

Three days into my trip, I wandered aimlessly into the tiny township of Ambleside, which was located in the North Western part of England. I stopped for coffee at a tiny dive of an eatery called Cafe Treff. The self-indulgent American in me occupied the largest of the modest room’s tables. Amused, my waitress Maja smirked and brought me water.

Over the course of the next three hours, the flawed conversations in broken English and butchered French would serve as a starting block for one of the most powerful connections I have ever experienced. Regardless of the struggles to comprehend the core basics of our attempts to share, the swell of emotions stirred by the sounds we were making left us lingering in each other for days. At that moment the backpacking stopped and I remained in Maja’s nameless city for the duration of my trip. A decade later, I’m still filled with a rush of excitement and butterflies when I think back on those memories, despite the fact that 95 percent of the conversation was lost on a lack of comprehension. To this day, relationships filled with Oxford dictionary vocabularies have not been able to knock Ambleside from its pedestal.

Sigur Rós is the musical equivalent of that emotion.

Since 1998 the band has been filling hourlong discs with hard proof that sound can stir just as much emotion as words. Begging to be placed in the background of a Sofia Coppola film, their sound manages to cause listener to run the full path of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’
seven stages of grief, without ever grasping the ability to gather the plot or storyline. Their ability to communicate through gestures and enhancements borders on operatic. Like the story above, the words end up mattering far less than the movements of the heart.

Valtari, the latest effort from Sigur Rós does not stray far from this course. Slow burning and passive in its builds, Valtari remains quieter and more modest than the band’s previous cuts. However, don’t for a moment mistake this as a sign of weakness. This album is as grand and magical as ever.  In his truest form, Jónsi flutters in on “Ekki Múkk” like something from Neverland, welcomed by an orchestra of chimes and pianos. His tear-jerking  falsetto is a gift from god, given to fans of music. Placed flawlessly over random bits of noise and computer jargon, the combination of man made noises and natural skills is breathtaking.

Listening today, the background technology might seems commonplace to the casual listener. The sad reality is that music has shifted in a manner that allows any hack with a laptop, living in his mom’s basement, to make a album has no doubt altered the grading scale of the industry. The result of this forces quality bands like Sigur Rós to either work harder to remain Earth-moving or accept the reality that their once ground breaking sound has now become watered down and mundane.  However, it is extremely important that we remember that it took almost 20 years for music to catch up with Sigur Rós. In my humble opinion, this is not an indication or sign that Sigur Rós has gone soft or hit their ceiling. In reality, it is a sign of how far ahead of the curve they actually were. Placed side by side in a sealed room, free of outside influence, I think you’d see this Sigur Rós is as strong of a band as they were in 1998. Hell, just take one listen to album close “Fjögur Píanó” if you have any doubts of their current strength. It is, without a doubt, an instant classic.

However, it is important to remember how impossible it is to compare Valtari to the previous Sigur Rós cuts. They’re just approached so differently in terms of darks and lights.  Both remain brilliant in completely contrasting ways. While they come from the same bands and they belong to the same catalog, in reality comparing them is like drawing similarities to night and day. The differences far outweigh the similarities. There is however absolutely a vital need for both.
Similarly, writing Valtari off for not being ( ) or Ágætis byrjun would be like writing off Radiohead’s Kid A because it didn’t sound like The Bends. Different doesn’t mean bad, especially in this instance. Is Valtari an instant masterpiece? No.  However, it certainly isn’t  a swan song either.

It should be a great journey to see where Sigur Rós goes from here. I know I’ll be watching.

SCORE: 8/10
Review written by: Josh Hammond

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