Ágætis byrjun

Jónsi, Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL, April 28, 2010

Jónsi's Icelandic spectacle

It has been about a year since music publications began posting their “best-of” lists of the previous decade. Most of these lists included Sigur Rós. Their second LP Ágætis byrjun, released worldwide in 2000, is appropriately titled: Icelandic for “A Good Beginning”, it was the first of four well-received albums in eight years. Critics lauded their post-rock as glacial and ethereal, with notable components of their sound including strings by the Icelandic string quartet Amiina, lead singer Jón Birgisson’s cherubic falsetto, and bowed guitar. The music has gradually entered the public consciousness through movies, trailers, and commercials: two notable examples are near the end of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the four-minute commercial for the BBC documentary series Planet Earth (after which the single “Hoppípolla” was re-released by EMI). Although there were rumours of an album release last year, it was revealed that the band is currently on indefinite hiatus as most of its members tend to their newborns. Birgisson, with his boyfriend Alex Somers, released Riceboy Sleeps, an ambient album, and announced a solo project under the moniker Jónsi. The first track released off the album, “Boy Lilikoi”, indicated that the album was to be anything but ambient.

Musically, the final product does not provoke any shock. The nine songs continue the evolution of the sound of Sigur Rós from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (the cover has been toned down). The songs are firmly in the four-minute range (give or take a minute); long tracks with slow build-ups like “Festival” that were sprinkled around Með suð are absent. As expected from a debut solo album, Jónsi’s crystalline falsetto is further cemented as the central instrument. He harmonizes in backing vocals to great effect, singing in English for most of the album. Jónsi has spoken about the fear in transitioning from working collectively with his bandmates to crafting an album alone: in this context, the prosaic lyrics with stirring, motivational themes are more meaningful. The arrangements, courtesy of the American composer Nico Muhly, are frenetic and dense. Interestingly, this was not what Jónsi had envisioned when he began the creative process: he wanted to move away from Sigur Rós’ “floaty, dreamy landscapes”, but there are similarities between “Go Do” and “Boy Lilikoi” and “Gobbledigook” and “Hoppípolla”. The faster tracks are chaotic – Muhly’s fluttering woodwinds merge with Jónsi’s swooning harmonies above the din of Finnish percussionist Samuli Kosminen’s frantic drumming. In this interview with the Reykjavik Grapevine, the adjective “ecstatic” appears five times to describe the music and creative process. Muhly’s early musical influences were English religious composers from the Tudor era, and my first hagiographic thought is of saints and prophets pontificating in a state of divine rapture.

Before discussing the concert itself, I’d like to thank Ticketmaster for charging me $12.50, more than 1/3 of the ticket price, to simply purchase a ticket online. For the music industry, the Ticketmaster problem deserves an equal amount of press as the piracy issue. As we decentralize how we purchase recorded music, we have consolidated the gateway to live music to the point of monopoly. At any rate, the Wednesday date was not sold out and, unfortunately for my net worth, I could have bought tickets at the door for $35. One may grumble about paying over $30 to hear a one-album artist (albeit one with an established pedigree), but the show’s set and visual backdrops justify the high ticket price. Designed and created by 59 Productions, they enhance the spectacle and grandeur inherent in the music. This is a show, not merely a concert.

The band’s touring manager discusses the tweaking and rearrangement of the show’s setlist on the tour diary blog. The sequencing loads the front half with slower songs so that the energy is monotone increasing instead of oscillatory. Jónsi emerged solo in a costumed shirt with tassels with a guitar to perform “Stars in Still Water”, and was joined by the band for the “Hengilás”, the closing track off Go. The slower epic tracks “Kolniður”, “Tornado”, and “Sinking Friendships” followed. A wolf chases a deer that transforms into an owl through a beautiful snowy landscape during “Kolniður”, and a projection of rain and rising water level accompanies “Sinking Friendships”. The anticipation explodes on the cue of Jónsi’s ornithological skitters at the opening of “Go Do”. “Boy Lilikoi” and its flower/bird visual motif are greeted with similar enthusiasm, “Around Us” closes the set, and “Animal Arithmetic” and a mutated version of “Grow Till Tall” appear in the encore.

The band’s instruments are percussion-heavy: bass and guitar are joined by piano, glockenspiel, drums, and monome. In “Go Do” and “Boy Lilikoi”, the musical texture of the woodwinds in Muhly’s arrangements are lacking and Jónsi can’t sing more than one part at a time. The epic songs are better live – Jónsi’s voice is more striking as it penetrates through the wall of instruments. That said, the ensemble shows signs of rehearsal and polish. The drummer is astounding – the many parts of the kit sustain a violent pulverizing during which the tassels on the shirt of the drummer fly in every which direction. Four mallets and two hands command the glockenspiel, and several band members take their turns at the piano.

The solid show left me wondering whether Sigur Rós will return, and how the band’s future output will be affected by this solo album. If Sigur Rós continue on their previous path, they risk merging their musical identity (beyond the falsetto) with that of Jónsi. They need a tabula rasa, another “good beginning”.

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