Concerts coinciding with album releases are often filled with a special kind of buzzing atmosphere: for the band, there is a desire to please an obviously devoted crowd with some highlights from a stunning back-catalogue whilst also giving an airing to some new songs; for the audience, it’s always a thrill to see a band who have just spent most a year cooped up in a variety of studios, suddenly unleashing their magic once again, on the road. For Sigur Rós yesterday night, this special atmosphere was intensified by a beautifully intimate venue – Westminster Methodist Central Hall – where even those seated at the back of the balcony could be treated to a close encounter with one of the most emotionally raw and unadulterated bands touring today. With Radiohead performing on the other side of London in the detached environment of Victoria Park, it was clear that here in Westminster, we could be in for an evening’s entertainment that was alternately charming, exhilarating, deafening and heart-wrenching.
Sigur Rós works on record because it feels like they’ve taken a slice of the Icelandic landscape and packaged it up for anyone to appreciate at home, but, in the live environment, the band works on a considerably more visceral level. Freed from the shackles of the hi-fi or the iPod, it is on stage where the true majesty of their sound becomes apparent: how it is being created; how the band members react to the noises they conjure from all manner of instruments; how a collective group of fans sits or stands, beaming to the rafters with appreciation and wonder. How appropriate, then, to kick off the evening with a charmingly fey and twee opening act from the band’s trombonist, Helgi Jonsson, who brought one tiny fragment of our understanding of Iceland (typified by his comments before a song named Digging up the tree at the back of the garden – “This song is about waking up in Iceland in the middle of April and it is still Christmas time”), before the rest of the band (which numbered 13 for most of the songs – the four core members of the band; the string quartet Amiina; and a five-piece brass band, the Horny Brasstards) could unleash a more rounded, wholesome musical and visual depiction of their bewildering culture.
Taking to the stage beneath five enormous illuminated balloons and a variety of piercing lights that matched Jón Þór Birgisson’s guitar tone in intensity, Sigur Rós began with a brooding rendition of Svefn-g-englar, showing off what was to become the recurring motif of instrumental virtuosity from the keyboardist, Kjartan Sveinsson. The waves of cello-bowed guitar that resonated throughout the church did not fail to astonish an audience clearly divided between revelling devotees of the band, and those whose sole acquaintance of the band was the placing of Hoppípolla in the BBC’s Planet Earth trailer. The band then proceeding to play three further songs from their previous albums, from which the highlight was surely the fleeting appearance of the brass band, who marched down onto the stage, and then marched off it to coincide with the equally fleeting brass arrangement in Sé Lest.
Before the crowd-pleasing Hoppípolla, the band then proceeded to air the first of the new songs: Við spilum endalaust, a suitably Arcade Fire-aping number from the new album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which ended in all thirteen musicians banging drums, plucking strings and thrashing keyboards in unison. Though the audience would continue to appear slightly cautious when showing their appreciation for the new songs, which were interspersed throughout the setlist, it was apparent that, yes, Sigur Rós have lost none of their talent for penning beautiful songs: it is only a new economy in size that has appeared, clearly aimed at tinkling the cash registers. But who can blame them, I would argue? It is only logical that, following the increased exposure they have seen since the release of Takk…, they should pursue a slightly more accessible musical route, and they are certainly well-suited to playing up the tribal, carnival mood that imbibes these new songs.
The remainder of the set included many of the band’s most recognisable songs, differing only from the studio versions in their extended length and the aforementioned magnification of volume, which resulted in the drums taking on a more pounding role than on record, and the guitar turning into a weapon of considerable strength. Though the stalls lining the concourses of the venue sold only tea, fruit juices and sandwiches (this was a church, after all), the propensity for the band to explode in a battle of ear-splitting white noise suggested slightly stronger spirits were at play.
The encore began with Hafssól, an older song dating back to their debut, Von, before Jónsi encouraged the crowd to lend their hands to the new Animal Collective-styled campfire single, Gobbledigook, which resulted in time signature-shifting clapping that would surely rival the 5/4 beat of 15 Step across the other side of the city. After an extended performance of Popplagið, the band vanished, before reappearing on several occasions to take a series of bows to an adoring audience, whose vocal worship was a clear indication that a further encore was desired. Eventually, and, I must add, only after a third of the audience had departed hastily to their pipes and slippers, Jónsi, Kjarri, Goggi and the brass band returned for one final song, which transpired to be the moving closing track from the new album, entitled All alright, and, for the first time ever, sung in English by a clearly overjoyed Jónsi who, had there been time, could probably have played for the rest of the night. This frontman’s energy never subsides, even whilst engaging in his bowed-guitar antics.
What a night! As we left the venue, postcards were distributed, informing the victorious crowd that Sigur Rós are to return to the UK this winter, a tour which will culminate in a headline performance at London’s Alexandra Palace. However, I would testify that it is unlikely that that performance later on in the year will provide such overpowering pleasure as this did: I am almost certain that their reverb-drenched sound will vanish in the cavernous confines of Alexandra Palace, and I felt privileged to have seen the band at such close quarters, and in such a wonderful setting, beneath the shallow dome of Westminster Methodist Central Hall.
The band played:
- Sé Lest
- Ný Batteri
- Við spilum endalaust
- Með Blóðnasir
- Viðrar vel til loftárása
- Inní mér syngur vitleysingur
- Olsen Olsen
- Popplagið [encore]
- All alright [second encore]
As a final update, there are some decent photographs from the gig that have been uploaded to this Flickr pool. I did take some on my phone: though they aren’t brilliant (I was up at the back of the balcony, cloaked in far too much darkness), you can find them in this Facebook album.