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coverpic flag Iceland - Full Moon 109 - 08/19/05

Sigur Rós + Amina
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, AUS, 3.8.05

One of my favourite gigs was about five years ago at a converted church in Bristol. By virtue of being a 'music journalist' (ha!) I scored free tickets to see Fly Pan Am, Sigur Rós and Godspeed You Black Emperor! (the exclamation mark was at the end then), and it was about four hours of some of the finest music I have ever heard. Godspeed played for about two-and-a-half hours straight, guiding the audience through some ecstatic transitions. And Sigur Rós? Well, they were OK. I remember wishing that they had enlivened their set a bit, as their mossy atmospherics tended to drag.

Having been underwhelmed by them before, I thought long and hard about seeing the Rós again. I haven't bought any of their records, aside from Ágætis Byrjun, yet I figured that in five years of recording and playing together Sigur Rós would be an altogether more tasty live prospect. So, I shelled out the $75, and sat tight.

Sigur Rós string quartet Anima were the support act, but for the most part left their catguts at the back of the stage to play all manner of plinking plonking instruments and weave together a pretty, crystalline din. Decked out in ornate, flowing gowns, and applying meticulous attention to their vibraphones, music boxes and glockenspiels, their glistening music was alternately haunting and irritating.

When Sigur Rós first took to the stage, and for the first ten minutes of their set, I held my breath in anticipation at what would seemingly become an awesome hour of music. A veil was drawn over the front of the stage onto which images were projected, and then the band were lit in multiple directions from behind, creating an ever-shifting interplay of light, shadow and colour. Intermittently there would be glimpses of the band behind the veil, and then the shadows of the band and their kit would swing into vision, melting away into what looked like images of a volcano erupting. Combined with the growl of their opening song, it proved a stunning introduction to the evening.

However, when the veil was drawn back and the bulk of the set commenced, it seemed that all was not well. During almost every song, lead singer and guitarist Jónsi put down his instrument, paced impatiently over to the soundman stage-right, and had an intent conversation. Were the monitors not mixed properly? Could Jónsi's bowed guitar need a little more midrange? Who knows. Either way it made for an unsettling evening, as there was the nagging expectation that something was not working quite right.

And that's the overall feeling I had of Sigur Rós's music as a whole: that there's something missing. The individual elements themselves were impressive enough - Jónsi's remarkable voice, the drone of the bowed guitar, thundering drums, pretty organs - but the cumulative effect of all that sound was distinctly opaque, ponderous, and, for the most part, pretty bloody dull.

I must confess to being held rapt for minutes at a time by the sometimes glorious interplay of the instruments, but I soon realised that the progressions became predictable and the songs themselves achingly familiar. The repetition of a formula is all well and good, but for this kind of atmospheric music it can leave the listener strangely cold, which is a shame.

The delicate magic of this band's music is clearly precarious, and perhaps I now know why Jónsi was getting worked up: the feeling that there's something not quite right, but being unable to put your finger on exactly what.

Copyright © 2005 Tim Clarke e-mail address

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