Sigur Rós is one of the few bands that I seem to treat each first album listen as a theatrical release type of experience. Before I hit play, I make sure that I have a long enough block of time that I won’t have to be distracted by anything. No work, no eating, no phone calls, no driving. On my first listen it is always just me, my headphones and Sigur Rós. Each time it’s the same thing; extremely vivid scenes play out in my head through the entire album. Whether it is old memories or new images that my mind is creating, it is impossible for me not to dream as I listen to their music. I understand that a great deal of the abstractness related to Sigur Rós has to due with the fact that a majority of their fanbase doesn’t even understand the Icelandic language in which they sing, and I am no exception, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact that they are master composers of this age’s most beautiful songs. After a four year hiatus, we have been graced with another eight gorgeous tracks from what I believe to be one of the most stunning bands of our time.
I was introduced to Sigur Rós (like many people are) through cinematic soundtrack, and with good reason. They are one of the more majestically cinematic sounding bands of all time. The film I first noticed them was Vanilla Sky. Cameron Crowe used “Untitled 4” (“Njósnavélin”) from the album () perfectly in the final scene of the film, and ever since I have been completely hooked. Ten years and three albums later we have Valtari which to me stirs up striking similarities to that very album that roped me into Sigur Rós in the first place. Both have eight tracks, both contain numerous purely instrumental tracks, and Valtari marked the return of the strictly over five minute track listing (and almost entirely over six minutes) since ().
After (), Sigur Rós branched out with their next two efforts, creating a much more accessible sound than ever before. Takk… even won numerous pop/rock album awards, and was regarded one the decade’s best albums by many. The shorter tracks and the poppier tunes took Sigur Rós to a whole new level. Both Takk… and Med were great albums, but I am glad to hear Sigur Rós revert back to some of their longer more explorative tracks.
Like (), Valtari really allows each and every track to breathe. The difference lies in the fact that on () the songs were built with more melodic structures. Valtari is almost like a jazz album, every song ultimately travels in a few different directions, but none of them are forced to do so. They naturally progress and swiftly turn into what they are. “Varuo” finds itself having the most dramatic build up on the album, almost reminiscent to the epic “Glosoli” from Takk…, but with a very different payoff at the end. Perhaps the most interesting track is the finale of the album, “Fjogur Piano” (literally translated, “Four Pianos”). Until about the four minute mark, the track simply consists of four pianos being slowly played (one by each band member). It then gently drifts into a perfect droning outro that led me to discover one of the most underrated aspects of Sigur Rós, the bass. It’s easy to always revert to the E-Bow guitar stylings, the slow force of the percussion, or Jonsi’s incredible vocals, but the bass is a very dramatic force in Sigur Rós that’s too often overlooked.
It is hard to find imperfections in their music – largely because there seem to be none. It is also hard to fault them lyrically because I have no idea what they are saying. I suppose if there was something to critique it would be the fact that this is mood-music to its core. Sigur Rós’ last two albums enabled people to pop on Sigur Rós whenever they felt like it, and you could get into the album in one way or another. Valtari is not as such. You have to be ready for this album. You have to be able to take a moment to discover this album. Enjoy every little minute detail, because each one is there for a reason and makes the album exactly what it is … a playground for the mind.
Can’t Miss: “Varuo”, “Rembihnutur”, “Fjogur Piano”
Can’t Hit: None
I think Todd might be a little blinded by his unconditional love for Sigur Rós on this one. I’m not going to fault him too much for that, as I have several bands and artists where my personal feelings and experiences are so strong, that I am at least partially blinded to certain flaws. I feel to some extent that Valtari is a pretty girl, but not unlike a million other pretty girls in the world. But Todd is in love with this particular pretty girl, and clouded by his feelings, thinks that this is the very prettiest girl in the entire world.
Most people who love someone or something irrationally believe that person or thing to be the very best in its category. So and so thinks she has the most beautiful children who bring home the most beautiful artwork from school. Mr. X thinks he has the most beautiful wife who looks perfect even right after she wakes up in the morning. Douchebag McGee thinks has the most beautiful sports car that he bought with his most beautiful paycheck. And Todd thinks Sigur Rós has created another masterpiece with Valtari.
So now that I’ve gone on that long comparison, let me give a more concrete description of why Valtari doesn’t do it for me. Let me preface this though by saying Todd and Wes both think I hate Sigur Rós, which is certainly not the case. I have been able to get into Takk… and Agaetis Byrjun substantially in the past year, and even () to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, Valtari just doesn’t pack the punch of any of those aforementioned albums.
Valtari is not bad, per se, but largely manages to assemble a bunch of tracks that never take off. There are points, even among the monotony, where the perfect note is struck or a subtle transition sticks the landing. But if Valtari is a sea of pleasantness, the task is too arduous to focus on pinpointing the nuggets that make listening worth it.
I think I could feel more passionate about his album if it was a movie score, and I had something a bit more tangible to put side by side with the orchestrations. As it is, Sigur Rós does not leave enough meat on the bone, and even when they attempt to kick it into another gear on “Varuo” it feels a little forced and grating; like they felt compelled to have a song with a heavy build.
More than anything, Valtari was not consistently enjoyable for me but was not without a highlight. The first two tracks, “Eg Anda” and “Ekki Mukk” display some stunning vocals, and somehow don’t seem to overstay their welcome despite their length. Beyond that, I had to fully concentrate to find other portions of songs that hit me.
^This video reminds me of a revolving night lamp I had as a child … which still really creeps me the hell out as it did when I was six.
If you are looking for a bit of a challenge, then Valtari may be for you. It is summer though, and gangster rap is in full effect.
Can’t Miss: “Eg Anda”, “Ekki Mukk”
Can’t Hit: “Varuo”, “Valtari”, “Varoeldur”
As usual, I must come down as the voice of reason on LxL between the unchecked boyish enthusiasm of Tinseltown Todd and the snarky criticism of the law school grad Austin. I, like Todd, have a deep love for Sigur Rós, with lots of great memories built up with their music over the past decade. I think it’s fair to say their music is, indeed, most beautiful. Todd is correct to compare Valtari to the slow majestic beauty of (), though I would also say that Valtari’s heights aren’t as high as those on (), but I would say much of the remainder of Valtari is pretty equivalent.
First, Todd makes two valid points about Valtari and Sigur Rós in general. Unlike their previous two albums, Valtari is very much mood music; it’s not the sort of album you can pop in at any time and be whisked away. You need to listen intentionally to Valtari as that is when it heaps its greatest reward.
Second, Todd makes another strong point about Sigur Rós being a difficult band to critique. By removing the lyrical element from their music and making music that is always, if nothing else, pretty, their music has always been fairly difficult to evaluate. That said, my best way to judge the strength of a Sigur Rós album is memorability and connectivity – how well it sticks with me and how well it connects with me on an emotional level. I would say on those two fronts Valtari isn’t quite as memorable as some past Sigur Rós albums, but it will no doubt strike you emotionally if given the time of day (or probably more appropriately, night).
On the other hand, I agree with Austin that Todd does get more than a little carried away with his favorite bands, and would kiss the feet of artists like Sigur Rós, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and TV on the Radio if given the chance. Where I get off Austin’s boat is his vehement hatred for the letter “V” with his three least favorite songs on Valtari starting with “V”; and why he connects so deeply with the letter “E”, I will never understand.
From my perspective, the two types of songs that hit me from Valtari were the ones that started with the letter “E” (“Eg Anda”, “Ekki Mukk”) AND the letter “V” (“Varuo”, “Valtari”, “Varoeldur”). “Varuo” especially slays me, as you would have to have a cold, bitter heart not to love the sound of “Varuo”, aka the sound of heaven’s gates opening. “Varoeldur” also strikes me with its graceful pacing and gentle lift as I can just picture a lifeless winter landscape as life slowly blossoms out of the earth on the first spring morning.
^A great display of Wes’s love for the “V”
I also think the length of the songs don’t in any way jeopardize the songs but rather just serve to make the album more mood-driven than melody-driven; making it an album that is wonderful as ancillary content (like a film score) and less well as a standalone record except when listening exceptionally well. Valtari stands as another grand effort from these Icelandic post-rock giants, but is simply not as captivating as (), Takk… and Agaetis Byrjun.
Can’t Miss: “Varuo”, “Ekki Mukk”, “Varoeldur”, “Eg Anda”
Can’t Hit: None
I can’t say neither of you bring up good points, you both do. I do have a fairly sick obsession with these Musical Kings of Iceland, and maybe I do get a bit over excited. However, I still stand firm on my opinion, and think you both are discrediting it a bit more than you should. The way it feels so free and abstract makes my mind go crazy when I listen to it, and that is a big part of why I love it so much.
I’m glad you agree on the foreign lyric aspect Wes. It’s like watching a foreign film that you love in a sense because even if the actors are terrible, the fact that they aren’t speaking english automatically masks most of the bad acting. Austin, I am also not sure why you hold such a vendetta fo V’s, but I must say, I strongly disagree with it.
To quickly retouch on my statement on how cinematic Sigur Rós sounds, I learned after writing my first portion that apparently there has been an experiment launched known as “The Valtari Mystery Film Experiment” in which 8 different directors will al be directing individual shorts for each song on the album. Pretty interesting concept, and I am very excited to see how they all turn out.
Best way to sum up this album: To each his own, I suppose. I personally feel like it is near perfection. Austin seems to think it’s worth about half of that, and Wes is in the middle. However, I’d say the one thing we all agreed on is the fact that when you listen to it, it’s going to take some time and concentration. I guess the question is, whether it is worth it for yourself to do so.
Aggregate Score: 8/11