Sigur Rós Live at Zenith in Munich, Germany
February 23, 2013
Words by Jakob Ross
Sigur Rós Induces Munich Into a State of Euphoria
On June 7, 2012, I received the news that at the end of the summer I would be moving from Anus Pimple, Georgia to an army base in Germany. I immediately felt feelings of fear, excitement, nervousness, and anxiety, mostly because I had no idea what to expect. And although this move has come with a lot of stress and quite a bit of culture shock, everything has gone better than expected, for the most part. However, out of all the fear and anxiety, one of the thoughts that hit me the hardest was that I won’t be able to attend concerts as frequently as I would like. While the nearest big city is Nuremberg (about 1 hour away from my house) the nearest city with a regular concert schedule is Munich, which is 2 hours away without traffic. I was eventually able to come to terms with the things I would not be able to do, but being unable to go to a dozen or so shows a year still hurts a bit. However, that does make it easier to appreciate the concerts I do have the opportunity to go to, and to choose them wisely, which is exactly what I did when I found out that Jónsi and his band of merry Icelanders would roll around to my future neck of the woods way back when the tour was announced in September.
For those of you that don’t know, Sigur Rós is an Icelandic post-rock/ambient band that has received almost unanimous acclaim for taking post-rock to astounding new heights, around the same time as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. What set Sigur Rós apart from these other groups however was their enigmatic frontman, who goes by Jónsi, and his crystal clear singing voice. Ever since the release of their 1999 sophomore album “Ágætis byrjun” (their debut release went virtually unnoticed in the States) the group has gotten very good reviews for their albums and their audience has grown larger and larger worldwide with each new release. They’ve conquered the worlds of ambient music, indie music, and the all-encompassing world of post-rock, and they rarely even write lyrics that are in a real language. Their concerts are often called some of the greatest concert experiences of all time, and after finally getting the chance to see them live, I now know why.
Upon arriving at the venue, Zenith, I immediately realized something about this crowd: they all look exactly like the average American’s idea of a hipster. This includes, but is not limited to, a beard, thick-rimmed black glasses, plaid long-sleeve shirt, scarf, et. al. While Sigur Rós aren’t exactly an obscure indie act (they’ve headlined and co-headlined festivals worldwide and have over 1 million Facebook likes) this is certainly the kind of crowd I’d expect to see in an American venue.
Another thing about the crowd: Throughout the entire show, I didn’t smell one cigarette. Nor did I smell any pot. A large portion of Germany’s citizens smoke cigarettes, so going through an entire concert without smelling smoke was a very pleasant surprise. America, take note.
The doors opened at around 7:00 PM, and just shy of 8:00 PM was when the supporting act hit the stage, behind the screen that Sigur Rós were to play their first few songs behind. For this winter/spring tour the band opted to have ambient acts with a certain amount of indie buzz to open for them, as opposed to a band with a similar style. When they hit the States, Sigur Rós are going to have Tim Hecker open for a couple shows and Oneohtrix Point Never open for a couple shows (both musicians are relatively well-known acts known for their odd brand of ambient music). For the European leg, however, the opening act was Blanck Mass, a.k.a. Benjamin John Power. Benjamin went through a 30-minute set that was a fairly interesting progression of sorts. It started out as a bright, shiny, warm ambient piece with a summer-like quality to it (as it’s snowing outside the venue) and eventually developed about halfway through into a noisier, more abrasive set of songs with a nice beat to it. Although it was obvious that most of the crowd wasn’t into it, I enjoyed the way the music sounded. Although I wouldn’t pay to see Benjamin play a set longer than that, I can at least know what to look forward to if I decide to see his wonderfully named duo at Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
At around 8:30 or so he ended his piece and gave the audience a polite wave as he left the stage. There was a quick sound check on the mics, drums, and guitars to prepare the audience for what they came to see. At 9:00 PM on the dot, the lights went out again and I was filled with an instant feeling of glee. “This is it,” my mind told my body. “Finally seeing a concert again. You ready?” I was ready.
They came on and launched right into a new song called “Yfirborð,” a song so new that it wasn’t even on their most recent album which came out less than a year ago (a few weeks ago the band announced that they’d be playing brand new songs). Jónsi went up to the mic and I felt chills down my spine. If I had any doubt before that he is one of the greatest vocalists of all time, then that doubt washed away with each song the band played. After “Yfirborð” came “Í Gær,” a song from the 2007 “Hvarf/Heim” compilation album. That song was the first one to actually blow me away, almost literally. It starts off with a relatively quiet xylophone/keyboard sort of riff, but then, without warning, kicks into an ear-shattering explosion of distortion that would make the average doom metal band cower in fear. I couldn’t help but smile and say “wow.” While all of this was going on, the screen that the band were playing behind (think Nine Inch Nails’ famous “Lights in the Sky” tour) was projecting odd images and interestingly disturbing short films.
Next came “Ný Batterí” from the aforementioned “Ágætis byrjun” album, which was followed by “Brennisteinn,” another brand new track. One thing I was beginning to notice was that the band were playing music that was far heavier than I ever remember them being, and I absolutely love it. Jónsi was playing his bowed guitar with the raw passion with which James Marshall Hendrix played his guitar in the 1960s. He was producing feedback that seemed to rain from the ceiling and annihilate everything in its path. He seemed to take at least a little bit of inspiration from the infamous feedback solos that end every My Bloody Valentine concert.
After “Brennisteinn” came “Sæglópur,” which was on their 2005 album “Takk…”, which also happens to be their loudest album. The band did not at all seem afraid to play loudly and heavily, once again proving that they are the masters of their own genre. They have found a perfect balance between beauty and volume. Next came what I believe was the final song to take place behind the screen, “Olsen Olsen.” The screen came down and the audience could finally see the band members clearly. They broke into “Vaka,” which is the commonly accepted title of “Untitled #1” from their third album “( )”. This piece, as well as all the songs on the album, are sung in a made-up language called “Hopelandic.”
Speaking of “( ),” the next song they played was the 6th track from that album, which is generally referred to as “E-bow,” although it, like all the songs on the album, is untitled. After “E-bow” came “Varúð,” which is actually the only song from their most recent album, 2012’s “Valtari,” that the band played that night.
Let me stop right here real quick to just reiterate something: Jónsi’s voice is the vocal equivalent of a rainbow appearing at sunrise. I just can’t get over how amazing his singing voice is, and he never seems even remotely tired. He sings with tons of emotion and intensity almost every night and hits falsetto like no man in the world can, yet he never hits a sour note and his voice never cracks. That is talent.
Continuing on, the next song the band played was one of their most well-known singles, “Hoppípolla.” If you were to ask me to name the 5 most beautiful songs ever written, this would without a doubt be on that list. It has been featured in countless trailers, movies, and commercials and for good reason too. Seeing it performed live is like experiencing falling in love all over again. If there is a Heaven, I imagine this is the song that plays when you enter.
After this came another song from “Takk…”, called “Með blóðnasir” which loosely translates to “I Have a Nosebleed.” Afterwards they played yet another song from “Takk…” called “Glósóli,” which is another one of their most popular songs. Finally they ended their main set with another new song, the loud, feedback-saturated “Kveikur” before leaving the stage to an extended note of feedback from Jónsi’s bowed guitar.
After a couple minutes the band returned to the stage to play the song that introduced many many people to the band, “Svefn-g-englar” or “Sleeping Angel.” This 10-minute masterpiece is the first track (excluding the minute long intro) from “Ágætis byrjun” and it sounds just as amazing live as it does on the album. And when it kicks into the bridge at the halfway point, I think even the most avid Sigur Rós fans in the audience were taken by surprise. My dad said this was one of his favorite songs of the entire show.
After “Svefn-g-englar” was yet another new track (the fourth, for those that aren’t keeping count) titled “Hrafntinna,” which, according to Google Translate, means “Obsidian.” After playing through that track they closed the show with the song that closes “( )”: “Untitled #8,” commonly known as “Popplagið.” This 12-minute behemoth had one of the most astounding buildups of any of the songs they played that night, and was the perfect way to end the show.
There are words in English, and then there are words that can be used to accurately describe what I witnessed. I think if there are any words at all in any language to describe what Sigur Rós is like live, then they’re probably all in Icelandic or Hopelandic. I hope I’ve been able to convince you that this band is absolutely worth seeing, because they should be on your bucket list if they’re not already. While they’re less interactive than say The Flaming Lips and less gimmicky (no offense to the Flaming Lips – their ATL concert last year was my favorite of 2012), they are still capable of capturing emotion without saying words that make sense to the average human. Because it’s not and never has been about the words, as the band has proven by releasing several tracks in made-up languages. The guitars and the trumpets and violins and xylophones and drums and bass all come together in the most beautiful of ways to induce nothing short of euphoria on all who listen in. I think if there’s any group of musicians who come closest to capturing what several European composers captured during the 18th and 19th centuries, it is this group of musicians. And thank goodness for that.