Sigur Rós, Valtari
By luke larsen
May 31, 2012
We live in a dim world. What you see is what you get. Life is predictable. The universe is a machine. Cause and effect. Regardless of what you believe, the culture of materialism reigns in our day and age.
Consequently, we have very few things left in the world that hold any sense of mystery—that recapture our belief in the deep meaning and beauty of life. This has little to do with the fact that we know more facts about how the world works today than we did a thousand years ago. It has much more to do with our perspective—the lens through which we see the world.
Sigur Rós is the kind of band that has always been able to tap into that perspective in its music with ease. In the band's earlier albums, ambient soundscapes and frontman Jónsi Birgisson's otherworldly vocals painted a particularly haunting and precious view of the world. Later on, albums like Takk... and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust brought that celebration of life to the forefront with a more direct approach: crashing climaxes and lush instrumentation.
On Valtari, Sigur Rós returns to a sound more reminiscent of its earlier work, effectively leaving the more straightforward songs to Jónsi's solo career. It's definitely not the kind of album that you pick and choose songs from—it's the kind that you're going to want to get the vinyl of and spend an evening alone with.
The album opens with "Ég Anda"—a beautiful piece of holy minimalism that features serene background vocals that land somewhere between Bon Iver and Gregorian chant. These kind of hymnal vocals are something of theme throughout Valtari, popping up all throughout the album like in songs like “Dauðalogn.” You can almost imagine yourself standing in some Icelandic sanctuary as the voices reverberate against the stained glass windows and cascade through the empty space. In fact, listen to this album late at night with a pair of headphones and you’ll find your bedroom a sacred place of transcendence.
Even so, the album doesn't deviate much from the band's previously established artistry. You still have the titanic builds in songs like "Varúð" and moments of prolonged stillness in songs like "Fjögur Píanó." While part of me would have loved to hear more conventional song structure and some more memorable melodies, Valtari shines in its quiet reverence for life. Its long instrumentals leave plenty of space for your own thoughts, emotions and interpretations. That’s what makes the album so precious for those of us who believe there is more going on in life than just bouncing chemicals and random encounters.
Christians have been imitating the spiritual drive behind bands like U2 and Sigur Rós in worship settings for years now. Whether it’s Phil Wickham's "Cielo" or Fee’s “All Because of Jesus,” it should be obvious enough that there is something that speaks to the deepest part of our souls about the music itself‚ not just the “Christianese” we choose to throw on top of it. Because like all of creation, music is earthy and fleshy. It's pure physicality—sound waves moving from hollowed chunks of carved wood, vocal chords tightening and loosening. It's all just notes on a page. We know how it works. We have theory for this kind of stuff. Even still, when taking a moment to bask in an album like Valtari, it's hard not to view music—and even life itself—as a deep spiritual experience as well.
Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music connoisseur and iOS gameenthusiast hailing from Portland, Ore. His writing has been featured inpublications such as Paste Magazine, Prefix, GameChurch and Christ and Pop Culture. Follow him on Twitter.