Jonsi & Alex—Riceboy Sleeps
By Ryan Hamm
July 21, 2009
The new side project by Sigur Ros' frontman is both haunting and peaceful.
Riceboy Sleeps (the album) is the result of a side project from Sigur Rós frontman Jonsi Birgisson and his partner, Alex Somers. Operating under the name “Riceboy Sleeps,” the pair have released visual art (in book form at an exhibition) for the last several years. The first of their musical output came out in March on the Dark Was the Night compilation with a track called “Happiness.” The song was gorgeous, dramatic and filled with softly shifting tones, and gives a pretty good idea of what to expect from Riceboy Sleeps.
Like all good ambient albums, Riceboy Sleeps rewards patience with beauty. The notes stretch and bend ever-so-slightly (but never break), and there’s never really a “melody” so much as a mood-evoking drone. The album unpacks itself with careful listening, creating a serenity that lasts for its entire 68-minute length. Riceboy Sleeps is aided on occasion with Jonsi’s recognizable falsetto soaring over the string-laden backdrop, but for the most part, the album stays away from a simplistic “slower and quieter Sigur Rós” formula.
Jonsi and Alex also smartly use the string quartet Amiina (who often plays with Sigur Rós on both albums and on tour). The strings throughout the album lend the record a few hints of organic sound, nicely contrasting with the synth washes and bended electronic distortions that make up much of the rest of the songs.
Additionally, several of the pieces (particularly “Boy 1904” and “Atlas Song”) use choral music to great effect. Like much of the album, the organic nature of the vocals is minimized by electronic manipulation. Instead, the voices—either a boys’ choir or a women’s chorale—soar above the quiet buzz of the songs, weaving in and out of the layers of sound. The sum effect is both haunting and peaceful.
Riceboy Sleeps shares with Sigur Rós an otherworldly quality that’s difficult to describe. It may best be thought of as “spiritual”—that is, not explicitly religious, but art that tries to transcend the ordinary of human experience and tap into something more than temporal reality. That might sound ridiculous and ostentatious, but it’s also the best way to talk about their music: it’s transporting.
Trying to talk about an ambient album with words is difficult. The music is so much more about experience and subtle shifts in mood than a quantifiable, “this part sounds like this band and this part has a bass line here” line that can be used when talking about most music. Ambient albums like Brian Eno’s essential Songs for Airports and any Stars of the Lid album should be felt, not just described to someone. Riceboy Sleeps is in that vein: an album that deserves to be experienced.