Two evenings of spellbinding wonder and incredible sound
This is the first of two posts chronicling my journey to see Sigur Rós for five performances in April 2017: two in Northern California, and three in Los Angeles with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. Be sure to catch them on tour and tune in to Pitchfork on Friday, April 14th for a stream of their second LA Phil performance!
Fifteen years ago, I remember wandering down a dimly-lit suburban lane on a chilly November evening, the street silent as a tomb. I had a copy of ( ), the third record by renowned Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, put that album in a Discman, and the quiet world around me instantly seemed to shift into some strange new world. I’ve always found that record to be an utterly sublime and immensely powerful expression of music, and was supremely pleased that some of my favorite songs from that album were in the set the first time I saw Sigur Rós play live. The band and their production crew are absolute masterminds at blending sound, light and visuals into an otherworldly experience; that show, in 2006 at the Marin Center in San Rafael, is still probably my favorite concert that I have ever experienced. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Sigur Rós two times, playing two sets each (!), making these my sixth and seventh time experiencing their live performances — and they are just as astonishing as they have always been.
With each new tour, Sigur Rós’ stage design crew pushes all of the elements involved in the spectacle of their onstage technology. The elaborate stage setup consisted of several tall metal poles, covered in spiky protrusions that gave the stage a vanishing-point, three-dimensional effect, along with two screens — one in front of the band, which moved up and down, and one behind, which was the full height of the available stage. Strobes, floods, lights on poles, spinning cans, and dozens of other lights were all around the stage, and every single object that was not, itself, a light, was covered from head to toe in LEDs. This allowed every possible surface — from the tall tree-like poles to the massive translucent screens — to operate as both a light source and a projection overlay, and full advantage was taken of this setup from song to song through the course of both sets.
In addition to their lights and projections moving with the pace, mood, color, and intensity of their songs, Sigur Rós’ visual accompaniment transports viewers to an entirely new world in the space of every piece within the set. Whereas opening numbers “Á” and “Ekki Múkk” were soft, gentle, and cast delicate shimmers across the stage (with digital fireflies fluttering across the poles), the massive anthem “Glósóli” was accompanied by projections of an endless summer field, with golden lights slowly warming into existence before exploding into a cacophony of bursts and sparks as the crescendo of the piece crashed its way to life. The haunting “Dauðalagið” made a forest out of the glowing poles, which cracked and shimmered as the notes grew louder, and piercing white strobes flared across the stage with each thunderous stroke that drummer Orri Páll Dýrason laid upon his instruments.
Each new song revealed another small part of the stage, the tech, the palette of colors that the band had available to paint their world to the crowd, and all were remarkable to behold. Even large, chaotic pieces like “Ný Batterí” didn’t play the band’s full hand, nor brilliant bursts of sound like “Festival”, which summoned all of the strobes, but left the pole lights dormant. Contrasting those, gentler pieces like “Vaka” grew to a massive scale, with a swarm of red lights, projections, and large pulses filling the space that the gentle acoustic piece gave way to. The closer for the first set, “Smaskifa”, had barely any lights on the band, but they were illuminated by a cluster of “birds” made up of lines of refracted light on the projection screen — all of which came to roost as the song built up, and then flew away as each band member left before intermission.
Unlike every other time I had seen the group, Sigur Rós performed these shows as a trio, a first since their formation. Despite the lush orchestration on many of their pieces and the dozens of layers needed for each of their songs, their ability to shift roles and responsibilities was beautifully fluid; drummer Orri and bassist Georg Hólm traded duties on keyboards, sometimes shifting from one instrument to the other, and other times passing the keys on even during the course of a single song. Guitarist and singer Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson remained ever stoic, his face twisted in passionate concentration as he lent his frail-yet-powerful pipes to each piece. While tracks like “Festival” did not have quite as full of a wall of sound as the band can do with four (or even more) members, the songs were still marvelously powerful and possessed all the majesty that the band exhibited in larger numbers. It also felt much more intimate — even with the massive visual assault onstage — to see the three men quietly, gracefully moving, beneath the harrowing storms and delicate groves alike that bloomed and fell around them.
In every live performance I’ve seen, including these, Sigur Rós ends their show with “Popplagið”, which moves from a gentle groove to drums that echo with a violent urgency, and then catapults itself into a cataclysmic miasma of howling guitars, snarling cymbal crashes, and the haunting wails of Jónsi. Knowing that this would be the final song did little to quell the excitement within me and those around me; this closing number is always an epic spectacle to behold, and the visuals follow suit in their mania. By the time the final coda of the song had screamed its way into life, every inch of the stage was exploding with color, with light, with harsh static, with a million amazing images and hues and visual thunderstorms all at once. As the band departed the stage, their tossed-aside instruments continuing to bleed feedback into the air at an earsplitting volume, hundreds of mouths let out held breaths, the spectacle at last coming to an end; the only thing left to us was an avalanche of sensory overload that lasted several more minutes before the lights and sounds were finally extinguished.
At least once in your life, you must experience the phenomenon of a Sigur Rós performance, if for no other reason than to see what can exist within the confines of a single performance. Their use of visuals and the energy of their sound is positively transcendent and will change what you think can happen in the course of an evening onstage.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2017 Jonathan Pirro.