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Ice, Ice Baby

Sigur Rós celebrates the harsh beauty of its strange homeland

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What is it about Iceland that inspires such weird, lovely sounds? With the exception of rap-rockers Quarashi, Icelandic artists (read: Björk, Múm and Sigur Rós) tend to favor the type of music that empties the thesaurus -- lush, atmospheric, melodic, haunting, dense, achingly beautiful, sensual songscapes that evoke a strange and wonderful alien world. Is it the utter isolation of the huge island floating alone in the Atlantic inspiring them? Is it the summer sun that never sets awakening the creative spirit? Is it the rugged but beautiful landscape of hot springs, mist and snow that's somehow responsible for creating such artists?

"The country really affects us as persons, and musically too," keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson recently said in a Q Magazine interview. "It's a big horizon, and I think it's good for your mind. Everywhere you turn is the sea, hundreds of kilometers of lava, black deserts and glaciers. It makes you humble."

Of course, it could just be the food. In light of such regional delicacies as harkarl (moldy raw shark meat, buried for six months before being eaten), charred sheep's head, pickled ram testicles and puffin jerky, Iceland's uncommon ability to crank out great musicians may very well arise from some sense of cosmic fairness, an international cultural karma if you will. But no matter how you explain the implausibly huge amount of wonderful music coming out of a population of 250,000, Sigur Rós is the "two" in the one-two punch that proves Björk was no fluke.

Sigur Rós (which means "Victory Rose" in English) uses falsetto vocals (sung in an imaginary language called Hopelandic -- not that this detail matters to anyone who's not fluent in Icelandic), fuzzy but never angry guitar lines (conjured up by singer/guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson, who plays his ax with a cello bow), vintage keyboards and the occasional string section to produce (out comes that thesaurus again) shimmering gossamer webs of music that stretch and bend but somehow never break. Trying to describe music this out-there exhausts not only synonyms but parenthetical asides, which is appropriate enough, considering that Sigur Rós' new album is called ( ).

Whereas many bands that boast such a densely layered sound depend on the recording studio to make their music work (the Flaming Lips, for example, now resort to prerecorded music onstage), Sigur Rós depends on its live sound even when making albums, underscoring the importance of mood and setting in its music. "There's an atmosphere in churches that's really nice," bassist Georg Holm recently told 2-4-7 Music. "It's not the same as the normal rock venues, which can smell like ten years of sweat. We like to choose our venues quite carefully."

How Sigur Rós will react to the Pageant this week is anyone's guess, but it's a safe bet that the audience will react with silent rapture to the sprawling, sonorous jams that have made the group's live shows legendary around the world. In both its attention to detail in a wall of sound and its less than explosive stage presence, the quartet recalls influential shoe-gazing predecessor My Bloody Valentine -- but taken to a new level of experimentalism.

Formed in 1994, while the members were still teenagers, Sigur Rós didn't release its first CD, Von, until 1997. This debut, for the most part, went under the radar, even though the band's ambitious template was already in place. Sigur Rós first began to garner attention worldwide with the release of its second album, Agætis Byrjun, which met with massive critical acclaim in 1999. The band's fanbase has been building steadily ever since, boosted by word of mouth and a fortuitous appearance on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (a soundtrack that's superior to the film). The band members reacted to this unexpected success by going into hiding for a time, during which they recorded and scrapped tracks for ( ) and worked on their headlining appearance at this year's Icelandic Arts Festival, where they played with a full orchestra and an Icelandic poet who read ancient Icelandic mythic verse over the music.

If this is starting to sound a little too Yes-era prog-rock for comfort, well, tough. Today's musical zeitgeist may center on simple pop and simpler garage, but Sigur Rós is unembarrassed about its ambitious vision for resculpting rock music. Whereas any American band with this level of seriousness would most likely be shredded by the press, Sigur Rós gets away with it. It could be the sheer power of the music that protects the band from the dreaded "pretentious" label, or it could be the secret belief of most Americans that Icelandic people are really elves, who, of course, cannot be faulted for making strange, epic moon-man music.

Of course, they aren't moon-men, and they really aren't that serious, as Holm explained to FM-4: "Icelandic people are extremely sarcastic. No, we are definitely not as serious as [people think] ...We're quite silly people. When you live in a country like Iceland, where it's dark for, like, nine months of the year, you need to have a sense of humor for that."

Although some may think that four guys from Iceland crooning androgynous gibberish while sawing on their guitars with bows is inherently funny, none of this alleged sense of humor makes it onto the albums. If anything, ( ) is more starkly emotional than its predecessors; it's difficult to allude to songs on an album with no titles, but both the opening and closing tracks reach particular moments of grandeur. This is not to say that moments of joy are entirely absent, but it's the joy of beholding harsh beauty and transcendence, as opposed to the joys of, say, beer bashes. Whether this harsh beauty is a tribute to Sigur Rós' home island's geography or a rebellion against putrid-shark lunches will probably remain a mystery.

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