I’ve been to many concerts and I can safely say that no band puts on a more immersive show than Iceland’s Sigur Ros. On previous tours, they had made a habit of performing at the lush Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. This time around, they booked Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul. It was just one sign that changes were afoot for this veteran band.
Last year, Sigur Ros released their 6th studio album: Valtari. It was a quiet, understated album full of ambient songs that evoked a sense of loss and mourning. After the the joyful feel of their previous albums, this one came a little out of left field. Following its release, the band revealed that they had been going through some transitions and were now a three-piece band instead of four. Multi-instrumentalist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson had decided to leave the band to pursue soundtrack projects and just get away from the rigors of world tours. Valtari was his last album as a member of the band. With that in mind, the album takes on so much more depth (at least it does for me).
Following that release, the band began playing a few shows and debuting some new songs that were as far away from Valtari as you can get. The grinding, industrial sounds of new song “Brennisteinn” signaled a new era for the band. Jonsi, Georg and Orri were soldiering on into previously unexplored territories.
Walking into the cavernous, hanger-like room that is “The Roy”, I remembered the last show I saw there: LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire in 2007. For that show, I had bought balcony tickets so I could sit and have a good view. Unfortunately, the sound up there was not very good at all. With that experience in mind, I bought floor tickets to this show in hopes that the sound quality would be better. Annoyingly, The Roy has what amounts to stadium vendors on either side of the main floor with illuminated Bud Light signs and the smell of popcorn and hotdogs. Not the ideal scenario for Icelandic orchestral rock.
Getting past the vendors, we were struck by the stage layout. The flat, raised stage was completely surrounded by semi-opaque drapes, shrouding the instruments in pale white backlighting. As we arrived, the opening act was already performing. Oneohtrix Point Never is a solo artist who performs ambient compositions on his laptop. Most concert-goers weren’t even sure the music we heard was live or just a recording since the performer was behind the curtain, hunched over his computer. The music was fine, but I think only 10% of the audience was even paying attention. When he was finished, he simply got up and walked off the stage.
After a brief intermission to make some final adjustments, Sigur Ros made their way onstage along with a number of backing musicians. It instantly became clear why the band had chosen The Roy for this particular tour stop: sheer space considerations. The stage shroud was not even the largest element of the setup. Behind the stage, a 50 foot wide LCD screen had been mounted and displayed various artistic images during each of the songs in the set.
The band played the first song with the shroud in place and various back lights illuminating the band. As they launched into “Ny Batteri”, their second song, lead singer Jonsi’s 20 foot tall shadow appeared on the curtain as he furiously bowed his guitar – giving the indelible image that has become the band’s calling card. Then, as the song reached it’s climax, the curtains fell to the ground, finally revealing the band fully. It was a perfectly orchestrated move. In fact, the entire set was clearly very well planned out, with one major exception.
The band deftly maneuvered through a set of songs that spanned almost every album they’ve put out in their almost 20 year career. There were quiet numbers, primal numbers and poppy numbers to please fans of all tastes. In each genre, the band displayed their prowess. With the help of a string section, a brass section and two multi-instrumentalists, the band was able to mostly cover for the loss of Kjarri, who had seemed to be able to play anything. The main three band members also had to move around more than I’d seen in the last two concerts I attended. Through it all, the songs remained tightly wound and thrilling.
Midway through the set, Jonsi finally addressed the crowd for the first time. He said that it was the birthday of one of their stage techs who had been with the band for many years and he wanted everyone to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. So they brought him out and we all sang. The band sang in Icelandic and Jonsi quipped that he had hoped we would too. Then they all hugged the birthday boy before sending him off again. It was a quaint moment that served to remind everyone that these guys playing some of the most otherworldly music ever are actually humans like the rest of us.
Then, their humanity became even more apparent as they launched into crowd-pleasing Hoppipolla and promptly screwed it up so bad that they had to start over. Jonsi appeared to sing and play the wrong thing and then laugh and try to fix it, but was unable to. The band tried to keep it together, but it all fell apart in hilarious fashion and the band quickly shouted instructions, had a laugh and then gave it another go. It was charming and demonstrated yet another reason to love this band: they actually don’t take themselves too seriously.
The show proceeded from there with no other hiccups. The band debuted four songs from their forthcoming album Kveikur that reinforced the new direction the band is taking their sound. When I first heard the single “Gobbledigook” from their 2008 album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust I thought it was as far a deviation from their typically glacial paces as they would ever take. It turns out that Kveikur is probably a further deviation, but on a different tangent. Perhaps the departure of Kjarri unleashed the desire amongst the remaining 3 musicians to blow up the formula a little and see what happened. If the new songs are any indication of what happened, I like it. This is the sound of Sigur Ros playing on the fringes of Industrial Rock and perhaps even Metal. The new single and set-closer, “Brennisteinn”, translates to “brimstone” and definitely evokes that imagery as it crashes and pounds and burns.
The band finished off “Brennisteinn” and slowly trickled off the stage to regroup before the customary encore. The last two songs, then, consisted of crowd favorite “Glosoli” and the band’s customary closer “Popplagið”, which may be the only old song that can almost match the intensity of the “Kveikur” songs.
So in spite of the stadium-food vendor stands, the cavernous room and the poor guy who passed out and puked on the floor next to us before the show – it was a great concert. I was much more pleased with the sound quality on the floor than I had been in the balcony (and other reviewers of this show said the sound in the balcony was lacking). Sigur Ros remains one of my favorite bands to see live and are still worth the ever-expanding ticket prices. It was a real treat to see the band stretch themselves a little bit with the string and brass ensembles and the new songs. I cannot wait to get a taste of the full Kveikur in a couple of months!
P.S. There is word on the interweb that this concert was recorded and a bootleg may surface in the coming weeks!
Should also include Happy Birthday and a false start of Hoppipolla.