Sigur Ros at the Park West


May 8, 2001

By Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic


If someone had dropped a bomb Sunday night on the Park West, nine-tenths of Chicago's ultrahip indie-rock underground would have been wiped out.

What brought the cooler-than-cool out from their Wicker Park havens? The Chicago debut of frigid art-rockers Sigur Ros.

How does an obscure and ethereal act from Iceland sell out six sizable U.S. shows before its album is available here? It's always interesting to chart the development of such a buzz.

Sigur Ros (which translates as "Victory Rose"--all song titles and lyrics are in Icelandic, though the group promotes the notion that it's actually using a made-up language, a dig at the Icelandic-ignorant world press) first came together in the mid-'90s around singer, guitarist, auteur and teenage wunderkind Jonsi Birgisson.

The band's second album, "Agaetis Byrjun" ("A New Beginning"), has been a major hit in Iceland for two years, but its popularity started to spread to the United Kingdom and the United States just last year when it was trumpeted as a moody modern masterpiece by tastemakers such as Radiohead.

Bootleg copies passed from hand to hand and were distributed via the Net; soon reams of gushing praise were appearing in the New York Times, Spin and other publications.

Riding this tidal wave of hype all the way to Chicago, the core quartet of guitar, keyboards, bass and drums took the stage at the Park West, augmented by a four-piece string section and a middle-aged operatic baritone from Iceland who supplanted Birgisson's unnaturally high and feminine crooning for two of the group's rather stingy 10-song set.

The group never played its strongest tune, the epic "Svefn-G-Englar" ("Sleepwalkers"), though the hipsters applauded wildly for the three tunes they did recognize, and they gave the group a standing ovation at the end of the night. But it was difficult to see what all of this rabid enthusiasm was about, other than that being in on it did indeed mark one as a hipster.

The combination of Birgisson's heavily effected guitar (which he plays with a violin bow), the strings and the droning organ recalled '90s psychedelic/"shoegazer" bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Spiritualized, but with fewer dynamics or hooks. At times, it was hypnotizing and haunting, evoking the sound of whales singing as they frolicked amid the icebergs. At other points, it was dreadfully dull, and the band's utter lack of stage presence and personality didn't help.

The album's more electronic elements disappeared onstage, and the classical connections were emphasized. But the string section and baritone were amateurish, and would have been laughed from the room by fill-ins from the CSO.

In the end, much of Sigur Ros' appeal comes from its roots in Iceland, one of the few locales that still holds some mystery for Westerners. Sure, the music can be beautiful. But if the band was from Cleveland, it would have been playing to 25 people.