After what was rumored to be an “indefinite hiatus,” (and a solo jaunt by frontman Jónsi), Icelandic band Sigur Rós has returned with Valtari, their first studio album in four years—and quite possibly their most epic work to date.
I’ll be the first to admit, listening to Sigur Rós requires me to be in a certain frame of mind. Don’t bother comparing them to other bands, because they don’t sound like anything else (although some bands now attempt to sound like them, which is a good sign). And forget about trying to sing along—what few lyrics there are, they are usually either in Icelandic or completely unintelligible. On occasion, Sigur Rós has ventured ever-so-slightly into pop or indie-rock territory, but mainly they are identified with post-rock, a style that incorporates slow, ethereal, ambient sounds and long instrumental passages.
With Valtari, the band has settled solidly back into the post-rock category, to the point that the record plays almost like a movie soundtrack. Throughout the album’s eight cuts (the shortest of which clocks in at just over five minutes), atmosphere seems to be the main musical goal. Rich, layered textures of strings and bowed guitar provide the main foundation, accented by the occasional touch of percussion, piano, glockenspiel or other noisemakers—and of course, the even less-occasional unintelligible falsetto vocals of Jónsi. To describe it with words doesn’t do it justice: when I read it back, it sounds as though the music is sparse and utterly boring. But the opposite is true; somehow, when all the elements come together, the music sparkles and shimmers, and the result is mesmerizing. These are some of the most beautiful sounds I think Sigur Rós has ever produced.
I don’t know whether this is a case of absence making the heart grow fonder, but from where I stand, it seems like the hiatus has done Sigur Rós a world of good. With Valteri, it seems to me that the band has re-focused and re-centered, and in a manner of speaking, come home. This is the best record they could have made, the record they needed to make. This band hasn’t been out of circulation long enough for this to be a “comeback” album, but make no mistake—they are back. Valteri might just turn out to be my favorite Sigur Rós album.
ALBUM RATING: Five stars (out of five)