On Valtari, Sigur Rós meld the melancholy introspection of 2002's '()' with the dense, classically charged electronic ambience of 2009's 'Riceboy Sleeps' album, by Jónsi and Alex. The result is an emotive hour of bittersweet abstraction;, shimmering piano keys, weeping strings and otherwordly singing invoke conflicting and complex emotions of joy and sadness all at the same time.
'Riceboy Sleeps' is one of my favourite records, and upon hearing Valtari's first promotional single, Ekki múkk, I had high hopes that the new album would capture the extremely emotive atmosphere of the former CD. Thankfully, it did. As album opener, Ég anda, begins, Jónsi's trademark howling takes you away from the everyday, and inside yourself- in to an introspective trance fueled by the music. Strings, guitar, and what sounds like ringing bells all emerge from the silence, and the sounds of waves lapping and the beat of the drum which gets faster and faster all wash over you, and then you know; Sigur Rós are here.
The track melts abruptly in to discordant electronic droning, before it re-emerges with a crackle, as Ekki múkk. Strings stir and Jónsi mews in a pleading tone; the vocal swirling around the violin, creating a sense of space and weight despite the frugality on display. Then the piano rains down, and Jónsi's voice soars, and your heart-strings are well and truly pulled. Ekki múkk effectively utilizes Jónsi's voice in the most devastating way; he sounds like a wounded animal, or a whale, or a plaintive man crying out to the sky. Ekki múkk slowly dies down again as quiet as it came- with only the languid piano strokes, expertly timed, left to keep you company.
Those piano keys are then warped, transmuted, as if placed under water, for track three, Varúð. Perhaps the most accessible of all the songs on Valtari, and therefore perhaps the least complex, Varúð is like Sæglópur from 'Takk...' meets Festival from 'Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust'. Jónsi cries along with the strings in the chorus, 'Varúð!' like a siren, an alarm gone off- and then the choir kicks in, and the drums come, and the song builds and builds- a giant warning 'this song is about to explode', and of course, it does, in classic Sigur Rós style (think track 8 from () ). A deafening cacophony envelops your brain as all the instruments and all the voices mingle under the crash of the drum.
Track 4, Rembihnútur, is a masterpiece. Gentle piano keys cascade haphazardly, like melting icicles, or a light rain. Jónsi coos and a barrage of sunny strings wrap the piano in a coherent texture; all the elements come together to form an extremely beautiful fabric of sound; a hopeful, magical sound, like the sun breaking through clouds. Then Jónsi sings a straightforward pop song, as the piano falls across his words and a joyous chorus kicks in; drums beating, a march- water breaking through rock, the sun shining brightly, rain coming down heavily. A huge range of wonderful images and emotions are evoked and stay with you long after the track resolves, squeaking like little birds waking up.
The sounds of lapping waves returns for Dauðalogn, and over the waves comes a funereal choir. This is a dirge, and Jónsi wears his emotion on his sleeve; the chorus picks up as he sings delicately, sadly, and the ecclesiastical accompaniment wail solemnly like grief stricken angels. Dauðalogn sees Jónsi sing his most emotional song yet as his voice cracks and weeps- you can hear his complaint. The track moves perfectly in to Varðeldur, with its dancing, meandering piano keys and glockenspiel, and Jónsi's charming mewing (reminiscent of Untitled #1 ('Vaka') all brought together by an operatic lullaby later in the piece. The whole album floats in this way, above the mundane, above the Earth even (the lack of groundedness may be off-putting, to some) in an insular, subjective space where a sense of religiosity and comfortable isolation prevail.
The two songs together work extremely well; and in fact the whole album is surprisingly consistent, considering the sketchy process it went through before it was compiled. Valtari feels like one hour long song of multifarious moods and shifting landscapes of sonic texture (again, reminiscent of '()' ). It requires repeated listening to grasp just how dense it is. There's very little black and white in this album, only shades of grey- the music molds to your mood, to your state of mind and your surroundings; they all mutually enliven one another. If you listen to this when you are sleepy, it will knock you out (especially the latter three instrumental tracks; Fjögur píanó will gently, exquisitely lull you in to a deep, restful sleep). If you listen to this in the rain, it will be about rain. If you listen in the sun it will be about the warm summer's day and how the light dances on the leaves.
Like any work of art, it is fundamentally subjective; it requires your attention and interaction if you want to feel the benefit of listening- otherwise you will find it boring, too ambient, too opaque. Despite the album's density (hence, 'Beast'), I find it surprisingly transparent- this is an album, like Riceboy Sleeps, that adapts to the listener- it is whatever you make of it, it is whatever you feel at the time you are listening, and for that reason it is endlessly listenable, always unfolding in new, and beautiful ways.
PROS- Gorgeous, richly textured ambient music as moving as any Sigur Rós have ever made.
CONS- Amongst the band's least accessible music; some fans of the previous two albums may be disappointed at the new direction, and so will people who just can't connect with the more musical (ie ambient) atmosphere of the album. I think the album is also slightly heavy on the instrumentals at the end (they should have spread out them out evenly).
4.5/5- Highly Recommended