"Takk...," the fourth album
from Icelandic art-rockers Sigur Ros, has hardly set the pop charts on fire,
and shortly after its release last year, the group parted ways with its
American record label.
True, the band has been
heard in TV commercials and films such as "Vanilla Sky" and "The Life
Aquatic with Steve Zissou." But it doesn't get mainstream radio play; the
buzz among indie-rock hipsters that greeted "Agaetis Byrjun" in 2000 has
long since subsided; it's barely sold a few hundred thousand albums total in
the U.S., and it continues to thwart listeners with the odd
castrati-choirboy vocals of bandleader Jon Thor Birgisson, who delivers the
lyrics in his native tongue or the invented "Hopelandic," evoking the
elf-speak from "The Lord of the Rings."
Nevertheless, Sigur Ros
drew a sold-out crowd of 3,500 fans to its concert Tuesday night -- no doubt
due as much to its own merits as the fact that it's a rare treat for rock's
rank and file to darken the doorways of the Civic Opera House. In fact, the
last opportunity I had to visit one of Chicago's grandest venues came when
fellow Icelander Bjork played at the home of the Lyric Opera in 2001.
surroundings and pristine acoustics contributed a lot to Sigur Ros'
performance, though the core quartet still offered very little in the way of
personality or visual spectacle beyond some flashy lighting and abstract
video backdrops. The English press coined the term "shoegazers" in the early
'90s to describe the swirling, hypnotic sounds of groups such as Slowdive,
Spiritualized and Ride. But they were veritable maniacs onstage compared to
the statuesque members of Sigur Ros, who barely showed signs of having a
Though none of them ever
rose to a level where they could fill the Civic, the English shoegazers also
had much richer and more diverse catalogs. It was hard to deny that Sigur
Ros' music became awfully redundant after half an hour, or that it has yet
to write another song as memorable as the epic "Svefn-G-Englar"
("Sleepwalkers"), the tune that first attracted its American following early
in the new millennium.
Drawing heavily from "Takk..."
("Thanks..."), the group was at its best when it was most dynamic, with
bassist Georg Holm and drummer Agust building wave upon wave of crescendos
as Birgisson unleashed his otherworldly siren calls and sawed away at his
heavily-effected guitar with a violin bow. The more raucous peaks made the
quiet lulls all the more effective: Midway through the set, when the music
faded mid-song and the group froze in place for nearly a minute of silence,
it was rewarded with the rapt attention of fans who held their breath lest
they ruin the moment -- at least until some yahoo shouted from the back of
the house, illustrating why rock's rank and file are so rarely invited to
darken the doorways of the Civic.
For entertainment value
as well as the breadth and invention of their music, the headliners were
overshadowed by Amiina, four women from Reykjavik who did double duty as
Sigur Ros' string section and the opening act. Bringing to mind a cross
between Chicago's post-rock heroes Tortoise and the Kronos Quartet, Hildur
Arsaelsdottir, Edda Run Olafsdottir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir and
Solrun Sumarlioadottir -- names much less graceful than the musicians
themselves -- built upon the electronic backing tracks programmed into a
laptop by alternating on strings, vibraphone, a wide array of bells,
harmonium, singing saw and tuned wine glasses.
To date, Amiina has only
one release to its credit -- the four-track "AnimaminA" EP released in May
2005 -- but in many ways, it is already eclipsing the band that has been its
mentor and biggest supporter, just as Sigur Ros' accomplishments will always
be dwarfed by its early champion, Radiohead.