Think the orchestra's stiff?  See Sigur Ros

May 11, 2006


"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.

The gorgeous 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 pulse.

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.