Sigur Ros at the O2 Academy Brixton, 10 November 2022

I’d like to start this review with the piece I wrote about Sigur Ros for I Was There – A Musical Journey, which I published in 2016.

Bjork was first, but the band that epitomises the sound of Iceland must surely be Sigur Ros. And my first encounter with them just sneaks into the 90s. That first encounter is the one that lasts, the ultimate Sigur Ros experience: “Svefn-g-Englar”, the leading track from their 1999 album, “Agaetis Byrjun”.

How to describe that track when I first heard it, and hear it still? Its magnificent otherness? Its outlandish beauty? Well, a week or so ago, I jotted some notes when I was reminding myself of the Sigur Ros experience. It’s as well just to transcribe them here, unadorned…

Sounds at the start like the dolphins, whales, swimming in the swirling oceans. Sonar blazing. Like waves breaking on jagged rock faces, like the wind driving through snowdrifts, like seagulls swooping for the catch, like the cloudy sky sending down a hailstorm, like the geysers sending up a blast of hot water. Like nature. And like the angels descending on the broken body of Christ and lifting him to the heavens…

Blimey, where did that last line come from? It’s real, fuelled by some glasses of Chardonnay, I’m sure, but heartfelt. And I stick by it now, in sober reflection. There is power and inspiration in the music of Sigur Ros, and “Svefn-g-Englar” is the ultimate.

I’ve used the words magnificent, cinematic, hymnal, sweeping, to describe other songs in this story. I’ll use them again before I finish, no doubt. But there isn’t much that gets near “Svefn-g-Englar” for all those qualities. Simply an extraordinary piece of music.   

The title, translated to English, is Sleeping Angel, or maybe Sleepwalker. Could be having those dreams, just like my notes.

“Agaetis Byrjun” is a very fine album. There are one or two tracks that get close to “Svefn-g-Englar” in their scope, and others which get mellow, simple, and convey a sense of stillness, fragility and maybe loss. The singing, the wonderful falsetto of Jonsi Birgisson, is fragile, but also mysterious, and not just because it is all in Icelandic. Sigur Ros’s songs are mood pieces, often very long – “Svefn-g-Englar” stretches to ten minutes. There is space always to make up your mind about what the song is all about. A challenge to the imagination. And then there is the awesome power of the bowed guitar. The bow of a cello or violin applied to the electric guitar. Pioneered by Jimmy Page on “Dazed and Confused”. Another epic.

I’ve bought a few more Sigur Ros albums in the 2000s. They are all good. Some strive for the same magnificence as “Agaetis Byrjun”; others are more subdued, introverted almost. All have an element of mystery as they are sung in Icelandic. But all have that same connection with nature. It is no surprise that the music of Sigur Ros has been used frequently in TV programmes and films. It is soundtrack music.

And yet I think of it as a humble sound. Respectful of nature and humankind. Grounded.

What is the name of the band all about, for example? Well, Sigur means victory and Ros means rose. But more importantly, Sigurros was the name of Jonsi’s sister, born just after the band was formed.

Sigur Ros is the sound of nature and the sound of human relationships – of family. Abstract, but profound – and lasting...

Well, there you go. What more is there to say? Maybe something about the concert!

I’d rather lost contact with the music of Sigur Ros over the years, apart from occasionally having a blast of Svefn-g-Englar. And I’d never seen them live. So when I saw they were touring the UK, I thought this would be a good chance to put that right. I hesitated when I saw that the tickets were over £50, but asked my usual concert-going friends whether they fancied it. Jon G and Shane were enthusiastic, so I took the plunge.

To coincide with the tour, a remastered version of ( ), often known as Untitled, was released recently. It’s twenty years old this year. Along with Agaetis Byrjun, and Takk from 2005, it’s the music of Sigur Ros that I’m most familiar with, and is arguably their best album – although Takk might be the most popular. The song Hoppipolla from Takk is the band’s most streamed tune on Spotify – around 67 million – with Svefn-g-Englar second on a mere 31 million.

It was a tube strike day, which made getting to Brixton a bit more complicated than usual, but the three of us managed to meet for a couple of beers at Canova Hall before the 8pm start – early for a main act and a sign that we would be treated to quite a long set. There was a huge queue at the Academy when we arrived at ten to eight, snaking around three sides of the building, but it moved quickly, and we were in our seats just after eight.

At quarter past the band walked on stage in their unassuming way, swathed in red light with thin beams fanning upwards behind them, and floating amoebas drifting by! Flickering dots of white seemed to float in mid-air as the music began. From a stately piano motif the sound built, as the band played the opening track of (), Vaka. They continued with the next two tracks from that album, Frysta and Samskeyti. Brooding, heavenly sounds, with Jonsi’s dreamy falsetto vocals adding to the sense of the spiritual. Music for cathedrals, I thought to myself. For some reason the gothic interior of Salisbury Cathedral came to mind.

iPhone version of start

Digital camera version

It was an engrossing start; and then it got better. A shiver down the spine as those sonar beeps that herald the start of Svefn-g-Englar began to emerge. A roar of recognition from the crowd, before Jonsi went into action with his violin bow. A magnificent swell of sound, conjuring all those images I described in my book. Wow! It was quite overwhelming – the  high point of the concert. And from there the music continued to enthral, enhanced by the dramatic lighting. The band, apart from Jonsi’s flourishes with his violin bow, were inconspicuous, humble in the shadow of the music they were creating.

The focus of the set was on the albums () and Takk, which provided 10 of the 17 songs. Oddly, as it seemed to be a greatest hits ensemble, Hoppipolla didn’t feature. Perhaps it doesn’t have a big enough sound; maybe it would have been a distraction.

The one mistake I thought the band made was to have an intermission, after about an hour and a half. It felt at that point that the show was nearing its end; instead the band played another 45 minutes or so. For a while I had a feeling of more of the same, which hadn’t been the case before the break. But that feeling was swept away by the last tune of the evening, Popplagio from (). The piece built slowly, the violin/guitar echoing, Jonsi’s voice resplendent, then pleading – and then came the guitar attack. A dramatic finale, and a fitting end to an absorbing evening.

At home, you can listen to Sigur Ros as background music, an ambient sound made unobtrusive by the unfamiliar language (which I now know is a mixture of Icelandic and words made-up by the band). Live, its full force is manifest. And you realise there is no-one else quite like Sigur Ros.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
This entry was posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sigur Ros at the O2 Academy Brixton, 10 November 2022

  1. Sigur Ros has made some of the most sublime music that I’ve heard. In an odd coincidence, I’m reading this just a few hours after listening to their live recording of the operatic “Odin’s Raven Magic”. I’m very happy for you, John, that you got to see them perform live 🙂

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