Sigur Rós At The Fox Theatre, Detroit, Michigan, April 1, 2013. Photo by Matt Nedwicki.
Sigur Rós announced the upcoming release of their newest album, Kveikur, two weeks ago, as the band was poised to start the North American leg of their tour. The announcement was accompanied with the revelation that the sound would be “more aggressive” than usual. While I didn’t know exactly what to make of a “more aggressive” sounding Sigur Rós, who are known for characteristic droning build-ups to expansive, cathartic releases, it did not dampen my eagerness to experience their world-renowned live show when they came to Detroit on April 1st. Like all the Icelandic emotional tour-de-force does, it promised to be spine-tinglingly impactful.
The opener for the night, ambient producer Daniel Lopatin’s project Oneohtrix Point Never, played a tranquil set that placated anyone who had taken their seats—leading to a calm anticipation around the theatre upon completion. Any action that wasn’t silent or deliberate suddenly seemed grossly inappropriate. When Sigur Rós eventually took the stage, the musicians were separated from the audience by a stage encompassing, semi-transparent screen. This served as a medium for the projections used throughout the first two songs. The opener, entitled “Yfirborð”, further extended the tense serenity gently asserted on the audience by Daniel Lopatin. The Icelandic ensemble wordlessly took the stage, and introduced themselves to the audience by playing melodic, gentle drones as images of spore-like projections spread out across the screen, which by now seemed more of a biological membrane than human construct.
As the second song, “Ny Batteri” began, shimmering bright images were intermittently displayed on the barrier as the frontman, known simply as Jonsi, took center stage with his electric guitar and a cello bow. Spotlights were projected at an oblique angle from Jonsi’s rear, causing his projection to appear huge on the translucent screen. The projection was less man than it was giant, insectoid silhouette, passionately impaling its instrument with a shadowy sword. When the song built to a crescendo and more members (with their respective shadows) were incorporated, the screen that had seemed so organic earlier was now the audience’s only guardian from the group. Just as the wall of sound reached a point of blissfully unbearable tension, there was a subtle change in key, and the screen suddenly fell to the stage—revealing the band, now surprisingly human-appearing, and a barrage of lighting and effects. There were eleven members in total: Jonsi on lead vocals and guitar, a bassist, and a drummer – the three at the very core of Sigur Rós – accompanied by a keyboardist, a multi-instrumentalist, a female violin trio and a three person horn section.
When that partition dropped, the tension that had been building so steadily was abruptly relieved. There was a sudden emotional openness to the audience now, a willingness to be captivated by anything that Jonsi and his troop thrust upon us. The experience the rest of the way wouldn’t be solely musical though. A stage-width display behind the performers was also revealed at the climax of “Ny Batteri”. Short, abstract films that coincided perfectly with the music were projected for the remainder of the concert. Each film was unique and each left indelible impressions on the song that it accompanied. Images ranged from mysterious- shadowy travelers on distant mountains signaling to each other using lanterns – to morose – gas-mask clad antagonists perpetuating totalitarian acts of violence upon faceless victims. Audience members were faced with a choice at the beginning of each song: let yourself become captivated exclusively by the music as you watched the members of Sigur Rós passionately slave over their respective instruments, or become engrossed in the screen’s overriding narratives as the musicians provided a perfect, post-apocalyptic accompaniment.
The most memorable of these film adjuncts escorted “E-bow”, off of the band’s ( ) album. The song, actually named after the electronic tool utilized by bassist Georg Hólm to create a signature atmospheric bass sound, is more so characterized by the slow, driving drum beat throughout. It is in time with this drum beat that the film and lighting effects were coincided. What appeared to be a close-up image of jet-black, rocky soil was projected on the screen, which had been lowered to stage level. As the song began, the projection began descending, giving the stage the disconcerting appearance of steadily climbing out of a never-ending rocky pit. The beat and the climb remained at a uniform speed while the other instrumentation swelled. Right as the song reached its climax, the pit startlingly opened up to the surface of a deserted, dystopian environment. The entire upward journey had been for nothing, the hope for ascension to bring paradise or bliss was shattered. While that was about as haunting and gloomy as the show ever became, none of the other film complements were exactly uplifting: most themes bordered on unsettling, often with apocalyptic undertones.
The whole experience was engrossing, overpowering and disturbing all at once. Crashing climaxes and musical brilliance were the status quo for the night. However, while there were moments of undeniable beauty in the music performed, there was definitely a forceful creepiness to the performance, often due exclusively to the visual effects. If their new album is supposed to take a “more aggressive” direction, it has seemingly oozed into their live performance as well. Sickly images unseated the normally uplifting feelings I associated with the group. The only way to avoid the dark themes was to close your eyes for the entirety of the show and listen only to the music, shamelessly ignoring the complete message of the artists. However, maybe that’s what Jonsi and Co. want us to realize. There are terrible things happening whether we decide to accept that or not. Things that are not inspiring or uplifting. Closing our eyes to atrocities does not make our world a more beautiful place. It just makes us bystanders.
But yeah, great show.