One would be forgiven for thinking that Sigur Rós had essentially run their course. After providing some of the most stunning and gorgeous music of the last 15 years, by the band’s fourth album Takk…, their methods were becoming a little too familiar. Although Sigur Rós once excelled at reaching the heavens, by this point it felt like the central purpose for every song was the crescendo. Their fifth album, 2008’s Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, pointed at new directions and was a solid effort, but it just didn’t quite satisfy like their earlier work. Sigur Rós seemed to be aware of the creative bind they were in when they went on hiatus in 2009. The time they took away from the band has served them well as their latest full length Valtari shows them returning with a renewed purpose, and their finest work since 2002’s ().
The biggest surprise on Valtari is how Sigur Rós suppress their old impulses, turning in a refreshingly subdued work. There is nary a crescendo to be found. A track like “Varúð,” which threatens to become too big for its own good, never even actually comes close. There is, of course, a tradeoff here; the band once excelled at winding the tension up and giving the listener a cathartic release. Here, the band offers no such thing. In fact, the dynamic range is so subtle, if you’re not careful, the entire album can slip by feeling almost like beautiful wallpaper. That said, even if the arc they employed on past releases allowed the band to soar to some truly incredible places, the glacial nature of this album is also one of its greatest assets. Almost as if they’re simulating a ghost town at twilight, there’s something almost disturbing and uneasy amidst all of the placid beauty.
It’s certainly the dreamiest album in the band’s already otherworldly catalogue. Each track is content on exploring its own atmospheric realm at an unhurried pace; the economic use of vocals throughout further intensifying the album’s haunting aura. And although the songs move along at a measured pace, they retain that distinctly cinematic flair that Sigur Rós recordings are known for. It’s not hard to picture a number of these tracks narrating various short films on the festival circuit. Not only that, but the instruments at work are recognizable enough as well. Bowed guitars, glockenspiels, pianos and string accompaniments are nothing new to the band and they serve well as the album’s foundation.
Sigur Rós really conjure some magic on the title track, which stands up with their finest works. It’s a slow moving, hazy instrumental that invokes complex feelings. The track’s reflective mood never pushes the listener too hard emotionally, which allows its beauty and mystique to be all the more moving. There are plenty of other highlights here, but getting into specifics on Valtari almost feels beside the point. In the end, all of the parts fit together as a unified whole, and it’s all solid.
It wouldn’t be surprising if this album ends up being the most divisive album in the band’s catalog to date. The fact that Sigur Rós allows the album to drift so mutedly is sure to bore some, for others, the sheer gorgeousness will be enough to satisfy. And while it’s true that it doesn’t scale the heights of the band’s finest moment, Ágætis Byrjun — wisely, the band doesn’t even attempt to — in its own unique way, Valtari comes close. Sigur Rós captures the ethereal beauty of past releases while managing to formulate more atmospheric, subtler approach.
Stream: Sigur Rós – “Varúð”