In 2013, I was lucky enough to see one of my favourite artists, Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros, at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. The band were touring in support of their soon-to-be-released seventh studio album Kveikur, and they played a diverse set of old and new material, including most of their best-loved songs. Although the band had recently parted ways with long-time keyboard player Kjartan Sveinsson, they brought their unique brand of epic music to life with support of a string section and choir.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Sigur Rós inviting me and one other person to their “last rehearsal before their forthcoming world tour at a free performance, somewhere near Birmingham.” It was described as a “fans only event”, accessible to only 250 people. Without thinking much of it, I replied to register my interest, assuming that among the thousands of people who must be on the band’s mailing list, I wouldn’t be one of the lucky 250. A few days later, however, I received an invitation to the show, along with details of the location, an unassuming industrial complex in the unremarkable town of Redditch.
As I filed into the venue, a plain-looking grey box of a building in an industrial park, I had no idea what to expect. Having seen footage of Sigur Rós performing in venues such as abandoned bunkers and tiny tea rooms, this seemed very unusual. Inside was a large room with a modest stage set up, with a table at the back where each visitor was given free ales (which, by the way, I would highly recommend) courtesy of the Einstock micro-brewery in Iceland.
When the lights dimmed, we could see the three members of the band behind a screen of metal mesh, as if they were performing inside a cage. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s trademark Icelandic falsetto soared hauntingly over a minimal, downbeat electronic backing. This first song, “Ovedur”, was the only new material they performed that night. The band then went straight into “Starálfur” from their phenomenal 1999 album Ágætis byrjun. The trio once again played to a backing track of electronics, which was a fresh and inventive take on the song, but didn’t quite match up to the grand, sweeping strings that feature on the original recorded version.
As Sigur Rós played as a three-piece, with no string section, they did not play their most well-known single, the wonderfully rousing string-led anthem “Hoppípolla”, a.k.a. the song used to soundtrack BBC’s Planet Earth, as well as numerous cinematic and televisual montages. As fantastic a song as “Hoppípolla” is, its absence wasn’t important, as the band had plenty of other stirring songs to perform, such as “Sæglópur” (where the metal cage slid away to destroy the boundary between band and audience) and “Glósóli”.
The band’s mixture of rock, classical, and ambient music turned out to be perfectly suited to the dark, industrial venue, giving the show an apocalyptic atmosphere which complimented the band’s darker songs (such as bleak piano ballad “Vaka”, the menacing “E-bow”, and the punishing, hard-edged “Kveikur”). The lighting and backdrops were stunningly artistic, with computer animations of faces and abstract, ethereal landscapes accompanying the sound beautifully and making for a show as theatrical as it was intimate.
The band, as ever, were on top form. Even with the use of backing tracks, I was blown away by how such a huge sound was made by only three musicians. Jónsi’s vocal performance was pitch perfect, from subdued laments to soaring, operatic moments. Georg Hólm’s bass provided a hypnotic foundation for Orri Páll Dýrason’s pounding, tom-heavy drumming, which was both technically flawless and amazingly powerful (best shown in the extended build-ups and urgent crescendos of songs like “Festival” and “Popplagið”). One of the band’s trademark features is Jónsi’s bowed guitar technique, where he drags a violin bow across the strings of his electric guitar, creating a uniquely otherworldly, drone-like sound which is at once beautiful and threatening. This sound is almost deafening when heard live, and gave the feeling of a huge metallic scraping, enhanced by the industrial, warehouse-like setting.
Over the night, Sigur Rós played a fantastic collection of songs, ordered perfectly to provide moments of serene calm, melancholy desperation, joyous celebration, and cinematic drama. The set ended with “Popplagið”, where a desperate, mournful wail is soundtracked by a tense backing which builds in volume and intensity until the tension is almost unbearable, before exploding into a massive crescendo of frenetic drumming and ear-splitting guitar and bass. The band went out with a bang, with the backdrop flashing blinding multi-coloured lights and then fading into darkness.
This was one of the best concerts that I have been to. Seeing Sigur Rós live is a transcendent, theatrical experience, and one I would highly recommend.