In the fall of 2003, I had moved from an apartment to a large 5 bedroom house in St. Paul. It was the quintessential “college house”: crooked hallways, chipped paint, drafty windows, dirty carpet and squirrels in the walls. It was actually perfect for the 5 of us who lived there. Of course, when it got cold and the heat turned out to be broken, the quaintness of the situation got old fast. I remember sleeping a few nights with three layers on and 4 quilts on top of me. Somewhere in the midst of these cold fall months, I discovered the cold, glacial music of Sigur Rós when I bought an album titled simply “( )”.
Sigur Rós, as most of you know, is a band hailing from the glacial quiet of Iceland. They play a unique style of post-rock featuring falsetto vocals, bowed guitar, thunderous bass and bi-polar drums backed by strings and keys. They made it big with their second album Ágætis byrjun, which was sung in Icelandic. With ( ), their third album, the band made a fairly large departure from the last, though it may go unnoticed by English-speaking listeners. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson sang the entire album in a completely made up language. The vocals sounds heard on the album are, in essence, gibberish. The strange thing about it is, to those of us who don’t speak Icelandic anyway, there is essentially no difference other than the songs seem to all involve the same few “words”. Not only that, but the album package contains no words of any kind at all. No liner notes, no credits and no track numbers or names. The only recognizable print is the album title cut out of the case card. It become apparent after listening that this is a concept album and a high one at that.
The album contains 8 tracks. It is divided into two sets of four tracks each and between tracks 4 and 5 are exactly 30 seconds of silence. The band has said that the first four songs are happy and light and the last four are sad and dark. In other words, the album itself mirrors the image of two opposing parentheses. Beautiful audible imagery. Throughout the album, the music is otherworldly and evokes the nature of bleak Icelandic landscapes.
When I first heard this album, I knew that this band would become one of my favorites. I played it over and over again and I studied, read and slept. Though there were no words to be found in this album, I dissected it as I listened and found that it was a deeply affecting album for me. I loved the artistry of it and the fact that the band was relying completely on the music itself to impact their audience. That singular concept changed the way I think about and listen to music. Now, when I listen to a new album, I try to understand what the artist is saying with their music as well as their lyrics. I try to figure out why they chose to sequence the songs they way they did. I also often ask myself if the song would have the same affect on me if I heard it without the lyrics (do the lyrics and the music speak to the same concept or theme?). And with my own music, I find myself striving to marry my lyrics to music that perfectly matches and not just music that I already have or is easy to write. Finally, I have spent time composing instrumental pieces of music that capture a certain idea or picture for me and let the music be the sole frame for that picture. All of these ideas and habits stem from listening to this amazing album. I still pull this album out very frequently and, in fact, it’s in my bedside CD player as I type this.