Music: Coming Up Ros

Sigur Ros' moody cathedrals of sound have helped them amass a huge cult following

Feb 15, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Helen Woods

Say "cheese!" The notoriously camera-shy boys of Sigur Ros give it their best shot.

It's the end of a long day as I flip on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. The host is talking to some self-consciously disheveled dude from Lost about skinny-dipping in Hawaii. As their conversation turns surreal — Conan says something about the guy's penis — I go to the fridge to grab a beer. I'm looking for a bottle opener when I hear a familiar sound emanating from the TV. It's faint but distinct, a low-humming organ complemented by what sounds like a xylophone. A voice enters, and things begin to get less cloudy, my anticipation building.

I scurry back to the TV to find a dark screen, its shadowy figures backlit by shards of bright white light. The camera cuts to the singer, whose falsetto starts meek and gets stronger. Yes, it's as I thought: Iceland's Sigur Ros is on Conan.

Armed with a playbook that doesn't exactly adhere to the cookie-cutter format of a tightly segmented television program — even one as whack as Late Night — the notoriously spotlight-shy band's appearance catches me off guard.

Later I learn the song to be "Heysatan," the closer on their latest album of singular soundscapes, Takk. Even for them, it's a strange song choice, a spare meditation that seems more appropriate for a church service. (The Lost dude is surely confounded by these strange fellows who are backed by an Icelandic brass band and who sing in the indiscernible language of their homeland.) The performance is a revelation, at once touching and surreal.

If all this seems maddeningly self-indulgent, that's the point — or at least part of it. Sigur Ros (pronounced "SEE ur ROHS," which means "victory rose") specialize in majestically epic sonic expeditions that range from languid melancholy to full-blown maelstroms, often within the same song. Typical song structures are of little interest. Vocals, if present at all, are more like another instrument that adds to the lush, atmospheric effect.

The quartet — singer/guitarist Jonsi Birgisson, drummer Orri Pall Dyrason, bassist Georg Holm and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson — hit the scene via 1999's Agaetis Byrjun, an album of extreme, mood-altering beauty. It caught the ear of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, and it wasn't long before the sheepish Icelanders were opening for the biggest band in the world, thus becoming the target of an eager press and a rapidly growing, deeply committed fan base.

The anticipated follow-up album, released in the U.S. by MCA Records in 2002, didn't have a name, song titles or lyrics — it later became known as the "bracket" album due to the "( )" symbol on its packaging — but that did little to deter their rabid admirers. In fact, it reinforced their standing as rules-busting purists who favored substance over style. (Or, conversely, in the case of my unmoved uncle: "Who are these pretentious geeks?")

"Our music is very important to us, but we're all quite shy people as well," says Holm, speaking by cell phone from Iceland. "We really don't enjoy being photographed and things like this. We feel the music sort of speaks for itself. We do want as many people as possible to hear what we're doing, but completely on our own terms. And we'll try as best we can to never compromise that."

But that's not to say the band isn't open to change. The recently released Takk is their most accessible effort to date, an alteration in formula that Holm says was inevitable. Leaving ( )'s darker tendencies behind, songs like "Glosoli" and "Meo Bloosnasir" bear a lightness of being previously foreign in their output.

"It all sort of just happened on its own," Holm says of Takk's slight shift in direction. "I guess that's how it happens with most of our records. We sort of just start playing and let it happen quite naturally.

"Though we did approach this record very differently. Almost every time we've written a song, we write it completely, then record it. But this time it was more like writing and recording at the same time. And some of the songs were recorded without having ever played them, the four of us together. It was just really energetic, and everybody sort of feeding off each other. It was great, lots of fun."

Takk's centerpiece, the seven-minute "Saeglopur," is an ebb-and-flow epic that leaves one gasping in its wake, a visceral feeling more common in the all-enveloping experience of cinema.

"We all feel it's very important that we get images in our head, or like a certain feeling," Holm says, his Icelandic accent growing more expressive. "You know, when you get a feeling in your stomach, (when) you know something exciting is gonna happen, or a feeling of hope. It's very important for us to actually feel something like that when we're writing or playing songs. Otherwise we know that something's not really working for us."

The band's fans feel it, too. Sigur Ros evokes an almost religious fervor from its converts, suggesting the question: Is music a kind of religion?

"Absolutely," Holm answers. "I think religion is a means to connecting to something different or just realizing something. You can look at yourself from a different perspective through religion. I don't think our music is religious, but, yes, I do think music is a religion on its own. Not just our music, but music in general.

"And it's not only our music anymore. It's affected lots of people. It's their music as well."

SIGUR ROS performs Thursday at the Taft Theatre with guests Amina.