14 October 2008

Rock epic of the month: "Glósóli" (Sigur Rós) 2005

Rock epics of the month is a series of posts where I'll look back on classic examples of what I think is the greatest excess of rock and roll - the rock epic.

This month, I'm really stretching the bounds of what can be considered "rock".

Sigur Rós burst out of Iceland in the mid-nineties, and some said at the time that they probably would have been long forgotten if it wasn't for a fascination with Icelandic culture that was brought to the world's attention via the work of former Sugarcubes frontwoman Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an Icelandic singer who probably would be better described as a performance artist. Or even a complete nutcase.

But where Guðmundsdóttir mined a genre all her own, Sigur Rós were probably better described as riding the wave of a peculiar genre known as post-rock.

Post-rock really was lazy journalist-speak for "How the frig do we categorise this?" It included acts like Tortoise, Mogwai and Don Caballero, and has since been used in arrears to describe some of the work by bands such as Public Image Ltd and the later work of Talk Talk.

Things that post-rock bands seem to have in common is a complete disregard for structure, as well as using their instruments in different ways to provide textures that would otherwise not make an appearance in rock music.

Sigur Rós started in Reykjavic and were named after Sigurrós, the sister of singer and guitarist Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson. Completing the band were Georg "Goggi" Hólm on bass and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson on drums.

(Fair dinkum, there's a reason why keyboards in the anglosphere don't have accented letters, not to mention Þ (thorn), ð (eth) and Æ (ash). It's because these letters were replaced in old English by different combinations of letters that do the same thing. I am getting so tired of typing these, but I'll struggle on.)

Anyway, not long after their first album, Von, Birgisson, Hólm and Gunnarsson were joined by Kjartan "Kjarri" Sveinsson on keyboards. They soon released Ágætis Byrjun, an album that introduced the world to Birgisson's penchant for playing his guitar with a cello bow.

Gunnarsson left the band soon after to be replaced by Orri Páll Dýrason who joined the band to lend his skills to the outrageously, pretentiously titled ( ). ( ) featured eight untitled tracks guaranteed to send you barmy, and introduced Birgisson's new fascination with singing gibberish which he called, "Hopelandic".

Their previous groundwork could be described as parts that were either truly "cutting edge" or straightforward wank. In 2005, Birgisson, Hólm, Gunnarsson and Sveinsson lay down tracks in the studio for the album where their experiments with sonic textures finally coalesced into something that, while still pretentious, hit the mark musically. That album was called Takk... and was, just like its predecessors, extraordinarily well received by the critics.

Unlike Takk...'s predecessors, though, you got the distinct impression that this time, the effusive praise from the critics was a bit more sincere, rather than, "Oh shit, I better give this one top marks, because I don't know what the hell is going on and I'll look like a philistine if I don't."

The towering "Glósóli" (6:15) was the apotheosis of this album. Featuring a nice rhythmic groove, courtesy of Hólm and Dýrason, this just moseys on down with rather lovely keyboard cascades from Sveinsson.

Over the top, but nicely buried in the mix, is Birgisson's completely weird-arse falsetto, which almost certainly relegates Guðmundsdóttir's to the top of the "normal" heap.

And it builds. Oh my sweet FSM, how it builds.

By the time that this tune finally unleashes a full-blown scary monster, Birgisson has put his voice away and is blasting out klaxons on his guitar, turning all atmospheric on us at just about the right time.

Oh, and the video is absolutely perfect too.

Be blown away by this. It is frightfully good stuff.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the few Sigur Ros tracks I've heard and I really like it. Glossolalia indeed. This may be selling them a bit short, but this song pushes similar buttons to Joshua Tree-era U2. You can almost sing "With or Without Youuuuu" along to it.

Perhaps the children are escaping Iceland's economical troubles? The kid at the end sold out too late, or something.

Speaking of glossolalia, I am in the process of discovering Cocteau Twins about fifteen years late. They are another band that, had they appeared on the scene today, would probably have been tagged post-rock instead of the dreampop tag they carry now.

Dikkii said...

Holy rusting metal, Taj. I never picked out the U2 semblance before, but now that you mention it, you're pretty much bang on.

Was it Liz Cocteau's work with Massive Attack that put you on to the Cocteau Twins' work?

But even though I can see the similarities, I'm not game to call them Post-rock. For starters, there's too much structure.

Here's a question you might be able to answer: Radiohead's Kid A/Amnesiac double set. Was this post-rock, or was it just plain, ordinary wank?

Anonymous said...

Not sure how I got on to them. Just kept seeing their name popping up all over the place, and as you probably well know, I'm a sucker for a big, reverby melodic line. I guess I never really grew out of the 80s.

I don't buy the structure argument. A lot of their stuff is downright weird, even discounting Fraser's nonsense melismatics. Perhaps they fit into some other sub-genre of post-rock? Post-prog perhaps? God, I hate that that sub-sub-genre exists. Someone needs to be shot.

Re Radiohead: In all fairness, much as I loved (and continue to love) Kid A, which of their post-Pablo Honey albums doesn't contain some serious level of arbitrary wank?

Dikkii said...

Perhaps they fit into some other sub-genre of post-rock? Post-prog perhaps? God, I hate that that sub-sub-genre exists. Someone needs to be shot.

Post-prog??? WTF??!?

I'd never heard of this one, and I can't believe that this one exists.

You know what I thought of when you mentioned "post-prog"? Tony Levin's head impaled on his Chapman stick.

In all fairness, much as I loved (and continue to love) Kid A, which of their post-Pablo Honey albums doesn't contain some serious level of arbitrary wank?

You have a good point. Nevertheless, I hated Kid A and Amnesiac when they came out and I still think that they were a low point of self-indulgence for the band.

But never mind that - do you think that it's accurate to apply the post-rock tag to those albums?

Plonka said...