Things haven’t looked good for Icelandic “post-rock” act Sigur Rós in recent years. In light of the front-man Jónsi’s well-received solo album Go and massive world tour, an “indefinite hiatus” looked more like an end. The band even scrapped an entire album that it recorded in 2009. Speculation about the band’s future has been intense: when it announced its sixth studio album, Valtari, rumors ranged from the overly optimistic (that it was one of two new albums) to the dire (that the quartet was splitting up for good).
The truth turned out to be a bit muddier. The band wasn’t breaking up, but multi-instrumentalist string arranger Kjartan Sveinsson was sitting out the forthcoming tour. In other news, the band is releasing a “mystery film” for each song — videos made by directors working independently of one another. As for Valtari, the band’s new album, it makes a statement of its own.
Með Suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust might have a tongue-twister of a name, but the 2008 album was the closest that Sigur Rós has come to making a rock record. Look no further than “All Alright” with its lyrics in English and guitars that sounded like guitars (for once) all over the place. For a band that claims to sing in an invented language and where the six-string was almost always played with a bow and enormous amounts of echo, it had a been a long journey to a more accessible place — but had it chosen the right path?
Valtari, on the other hand, is Sigur Rós at its most ethereal, and that even goes for the source material. The album is something of a clearinghouse for unfinished tunes from the Takk era and otherwise — and perhaps that’s why they feel so fleeting and hard to grasp. “Rembihnútur,” “Fjögur Píanó,” and “Valtari,” for example, were originally recorded back in 2009 for the album that was scrapped in 2010. “Varúð” was originally written for a film, and the album, which lacks hard edges and song structures, is sometimes reminiscent of an abstract-leaning score. If this is an alternative road not taken for Sigur Rós, it is a more rarified one.
At some points, this can be heard as classic Sigur Rós with some electronic touches; Jónsi’s familiar falsetto and swelling strings build dramatically on “Ekki Múkk,” which also incorporates some squeaking electronic textures. But overall, this more meditative Sigur Rós requires more patience than ever. And at its low points, it gels into a new-agey wash-out.
The atmospheric, slowly unfolding tunes include “Fjögur píanó,” which is built on plunked, basic piano lines and the glitchy electronic title track. “Dauðalogn,” with its organ and choral sonics, is Sigur Rós at its most spiritual; you can almost visualize a congregation nodding along. The folksier “Rembihnútur” might be the most conventional song here, as it comes together like a subliminal anthem when epic themes are explored by a chorus and swelling strings. The band is at its best when the songs seem to move skyward and find something new like a camera panning across Iceland’s rugged landscape. “Ég anda” goes from echoing chorus to a hopeful guitar line and an upbeat peak before collapsing back into humming tones. Album centerpiece “Varud” climbs and falls in its own way too.
Valtari might mean “steamroller,” but it is a hook-less, subtle album — one that won’t serve to convert too many new fans. The record’s soundscapes are modestly sized compared to the huge sound and dynamics of previous efforts. And though Valtari might have been the record that Sigur Rós needed to make, even faithful fans likely will find it challenging and without easy access points. For an act that’s been so good at staking out previously unknown territory, Sigur Rós doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t sound bold.