The word “ethereal” is such a commonly-used descriptor in music journalism that nowadays most decent writers avoid it at all costs. It’s one of those tropes used to separate amateur from professional, a term used all-too-often to describe any kind of light, airy, atmospheric music that might have an otherworldly (another word in the same category) feel to it. You’ll most often see it used to describe postrock and other music with ambient sensibilities. Sigur Rós basically invented otherworldly, ambient post rock, so here we are, describing them as they are: ethereal. Transcendent. Spatial. Spectacular.
There really is no band out there quite like Sigur Rós, and it’s unlikely there ever will be.
For 25 years, the Icelandic group have been crafting musical magic with their enriching melodies and full soundscapes, defined by their misty pastels, pleasingly phonetic language, Jonsi’s boyish falsetto, and using violin bows to play the guitar.
The group have released six albums, none of which have achieved less than critical acclaim, particularly the trilogy that illuminated the 2000s, Ágætis byrjun, ( ) and Takk.
Not many groups can embark on sold-out world tours having not released an album in more than four years, but Sigur Rós are not your average group. And so, they performed at Splendour in the Grass this month, alongside a national tour. Their Sydney leg saw them perform at the Hordern Pavilion, a perfectly-sized venue for their ethereal music and, perhaps of equal importance, their spellbinding light display, one of the most gorgeous, literally illuminating visual accompaniments to a live show I’ve ever seen.
The last time I saw the group perform live was five years ago at the wonderful, though ill-fated and short-lived Harvest Festival.
I’ve seen a lot of shows at the Hordern, but nothing quite like this. There was no opening act, the group instead opting for a 2+ hour live show split into two acts, divided, like theatre, with a 20-ish minute interlude. Sound and light came together as one in a carefully-constructed visceral display of sensory beauty, enveloping the hypnotised, glassy-eyed crowd with their captivating soundscapes.
They delivered an ethereal, dreamlike set, the kind where you could’ve walked in not knowing a single track from their entire catalogue, and still find yourself transported to another dimension. The set artfully darted to and fro between songs from throughout their entire career, in a way that almost felt like an ambient film soundtrack more than anything else. Each song swelled and soared, from early favourites like Glósóli and Sæglópur through to some of their latest music, including Kveikur from their latest album of the same name.
The striking accompanying light show was as elevating and enveloping as the music itself; the Pavilion was overtaken by striking shapes and enchanting shadows, dancing their way across the stage and out into the crowd, symbiotically swelling and reaching, a visual extension of the music itself. It’s difficult to describe just how beautiful it was, and we weren’t alone – there aren’t many shows where an entire audience of several thousand feel completely mesmerised, simply in awe of everything around them.
Two hours stretched out into what could’ve been far longer, but it was then over all too soon. As the crowd filed out, there was a feeling in the air that we had witnessed something rare and precious; something we won’t, and can’t, forget.