Sigur R髎
"S忙gl贸pur"

(Filter US Recordings 2006)Sigur R髎 - S忙gl贸pur

A few years ago, while discussing some of the more interesting bands we'd heard lately, a friend of mine told me: "I can't remember their name, but there's this band from Iceland who made an album that sounds like Kid A, except it came out before Kid A, and it's a lot better"¦ oh, yeah, and their lyrics are all in a language that the singer made up himself."

That band was Sigur Rós, and my friend's description of their 1999 US debut Ágætis Byrjun -- experimental Radiohead done better -- still holds...sort of. Surrounding their guitars and drums with bells, strings, children's choirs, and subtle electronics, Sigur Rós merges indie rock and ambient music far more seamlessly than Radiohead. At the same time, their preference for droning, ultra-minimalist compositions over pop songs has assured that Sigur Rós will never enjoy Radiohead's mainstream success (except, of course, in their native Iceland, a place where -- given the popularity of groups like Sigur Rós and The Sugarcubes -- even senior citizens must listen to art rock).

Sæglópur -- a CD/DVD set that combines the titular single with three unreleased tracks and a trio of videos from Sigur Rós' fourth and latest album, Takk -- opens with a simple melody played on glockenspiel and piano, plus the voice of singer Jon Thor Birgisson drifting in and out like a moaning ghost. This carries on for sixty seconds before the full band comes crashing in with the force of a glacier splashing into the sea. As the intensity skyrockets, Birgisson's vocals become increasingly impassioned, sounding like an angel heralding the end of the world. In terms of sheer, symphonic power, it makes The Arcade Fire look like a Bic lighter.

Once the storm of the title track is over, the remaining songs seem like driftwood in the floodwater. "Refur" is a fleeting flicker of echoing piano notes, while "Ó friður" finds an ensemble of strings, flute and piano drawing out a single note for two minutes before Birgisson joins in with a trembling vocal refrain. "Kafari", the final track, is a drone played mostly on waterbells that's so gentle as to barely register on the eardrums.

Lovely as the music may be, the value of Sæglópur as a piece of merchandise depends entirely upon one's level of devotion to the artist. Given that it's neither the best starting point for newcomers (that would be Ágætis Byrjun or its effectively untitled follow-up ( ) -- a.k.a. "Parenthesis"), nor terribly essential for casual fans, I suppose the litmus test for whether one needs to buy it would be whether one considers watching Sigur Rós' videos of children swimming and waving flags on YouTube an inadequate substitute for the DVD. Otherwise, this is exactly the sort of interesting-but-inessential "B" material that a band ought to be giving away free to fans on its website.

B-

buy it!