Am I going to be the one who gives Sigur Rós, Icelands most eminent soundscape creators, a bad review? No. Absolutely not in any way shape or form. I don’t have the guts, and my ears and my soul loved this album so much I couldn’t do it to myself.
However, I will tack a rider on to the end of that paragraph. It’s different. And this is a band who doesn’t really do different. With such an emphatic back catalogue, it’s hard to see how this could be a criticism. They are a band who has shaped and defined the movement known as post-rock, who have forged a new path of their own by creating music that leaves those of us who lived before Sigur Rós feel empty, feel like there was always a genre missing from the world. I don’t want to oversell them. But that’s ok because I can’t, it cannot be done. When I first heard Takk… it was a watershed day for me. Music was not all about guitars and computers, and technically gifted drummers and boys with high voices. It could transport you, make you less aware of your surroundings rather than bringing them in to focus, it was like a drug that could never be abused. I recently wrote a review for Beach House, describing them and Sigur Rós as residents of the time when you lay your head down, but before you go to sleep, hovering on the edge of consciousness.
So it was with open arms that I welcomed Valtari in to my heavy rotation, but with a heavy heart that I let it go almost instantly. This was not an exercise in the post-rock they normally deal with. This was a quick slide in to the murky depths of ambient music, a genre so broad it can encompass whale sounds as well as elevator music. The heavily strangled guitars remained, but the absence of more mainstream instrumentation left a big fuzzy hole that was instead filled with string and synth processions so slow, listening to the changes in song was akin to watching a glacier recede, almost imperceptible to the naked ear so to speak. Ég anda features a small flurry of piano around the 5 minute mark. Ekki Múkk allows a muted chord progression towards the end as well. Varúð debuts an Explosions In The Sky moment, again around the 5 minute mark, a veritable orgy of cymbals and guitar that gently dies in to a gospel coo. Then a simmering stew of synth and strings greets you until the delicate piano dance of Fjögur píanó, which translated in to English means four pianos. It is a lovely piece.
In fact everything on the album is lovely. I don’t see this as the regression that other commentators have described and feared. The almost total lack of drums doesn’t signify a withdrawal in to background music. It produces a significantly more delicate wall of sound, even with strong string sections dominating the beginning and middle of most songs. Previous Sigur Rós albums have felt like a musical commentary on a variety of situations, a musical interpretation if you will of waking up in the morning, going to work, surfing at sunset. Valtari presents itself as a musical soundtrack to a single day in an Icelandic forest. It’s not a small sound, but it’s presented in a more simple and subdued way.
It’s in the way it makes you feel. It is a muscle relaxant, a tension abater, an exercise in stress management. There is no call to arms on this record, you will not be infected by an irrepressible urge to play distorted power chords on your guitar. You may be inspired to turn your computer on and arrange some string and gospel music, but you’ll quickly tire of that and lie back in your comfy chair and relax in to the grace of the sound.
7/10. You cannot mark an album from them any less, because of the sheer beauty they present from even the most mundane appearing songs. It’s no Takk…, there is no Svefn-g-englar moment on this record. If you put it on at night when you are trying to fall asleep, nothing will jolt you back to consciousness. You will drift aimlessly and serenely onwards towards the land of nod. And in the end, how can you fault that?