Sigur Ros comes from a place beyond language

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 23, 2013 

— Sigur Ros is most often referred to as a “post-rock” band, but “post-verbal” might be a more accurate label. This Icelandic ensemble is a group that once called an album “(),” with untitled tracks. And in an ideal universe, nobody would actually review or write words about Sigur Ros; instead, we’d all somehow just respond emotionally to the music in a way that manifested itself to others.

The band has made a few moves toward mainstream Western linearity over the past 15 years, including a few songs with English lyrics. But as Sigur Ros’ Saturday night show at a soggy Red Hat Amphitheater demonstrated, they’re still pretty much the last word (beyond the last word, even) in evocative ambience that grips the heart rather than the head.

The rain reduced the pages of my notebook to illegible smudges, so I’m afraid I have few specifics to offer about the 90-minute show – which somehow seems fitting. Sigur Ros is highly impressionistic music, and Saturday’s most lasting impression was the image of frontman Jon Thor “Jonsi” Birgisson bowing his guitar, eyes closed and howling wordlessly in a torrential downpour.

Following a half-hour of wallpapery, ethereal solemnity by opening act Julianna Barwick, the headliners filed out in an 11-piece configuration with the core trio augmented by horns, strings, keyboards, extra percussion – and the requisite killer light show. There were lasers and blinding strobes at seizure-inducing intensities, plus the homey touch of several dozen floor lamps with clear incandescent light bulbs. The video screens showed looped and indistinct images of nature scenes, mostly, with cells growing and retracting, smoke dispersing, crashing waves and so on.

As for the music, it was dazzling, orchestrated as always by Birgisson. He used a bow on his guitar on all but a handful of songs, producing ambient roars of varying textures. Except for the one and only time he spoke to the audience between songs – “Thank you very much, nice to be here,” eight songs and one hour in – I didn’t understand a word all night.

But there was plenty to drink in beyond linear meanings, raw emotions and mood swings from crashing sonic waves that picked you up and swept you away. The 14 songs went back and forth between jarring and soothing, cannily paced mood music for long, cold nights. Although it worked pretty well for a warm, wet one, too. At one point, someone in the crowd flung an Icelandic flag onstage and it landed right on Birgisson’s hand.

Just before departing the stage at the end of the show and leaving his guitar laid down to feed back, Birgisson kicked over his microphone stand; perhaps that was just to emphasize that Sigur Ros isn’t a band you need to understand in order to get. But the group returned to take a bow as the applause rained down, and the video screen flashed a single word: “TAKK.”

That’s “Thanks,” y’all. I think.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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