I used to have favorite songs—the ones that I absolutely had to hear each time I attended a concert. The ones where you’d be disappointed, maybe even crushed, if the band didn’t play the single song in their catalogue that you wanted to hear above all others.
Now, I just have favorite artists—the kind who you promise yourself you will never miss any show that comes anywhere near you. They’re the ones who you get giddy about, like a kid on Christmas morning, the very second they announce new live dates, and then you anticipate their show for months and months.
This time, the anticipation started on April 4 when Sigur Rós announced a 17-date North American tour, which would be stopping through Portland at the Keller Auditorium on September 21. With no new album to promote, the ethereal, experimental Icelandic three-piece did promise audiences no opening act but rather two sets each evening. And it was a career-spanning offering stripped down to the basics: just the three multi-instrumentalist, Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson, Georg "Goggi" Hólm and Orri Páll Dýrason, by themselves on stage—surrounded by an evolving lighting display of theatrical proportions.
"Every time you go on tour you want it to be different... and every time it is, usually because you have a new album you want to play people,” the band stated upon announcing their string of live dates. “But there was a time when things were the other way round, when we worked stuff out on the road. This time, in addition to playing songs you know, we wanted to remember the seat-of-your-pants feeling experienced in the wake of Ágætis byrjun, when for two years we formed and re-formed the songs that would go on to be the ( ) album live in front of people, night after night.”
“We can only ask you to trust us on this one,” they said. And trust we did. We trusted as the three men gave us two sets of sonically and visually immersive, spelling-binding, beautiful work.
Bustling into the venue for the 8:30pm sharp start time, the first hour-long set lulled and brooded, emitting both a warmth that could coax you to sleep as well as the accompanying nightmares once you fell into its grasp. As Jónsi bowed his guitar strings and howled blessedly, simple yet powerfully repetitive cadences on the drums propelled songs forward as seemingly static yet fidgety baselines were thrummed from the instrument’s frets. Accompanying the music were enveloping environs that recalled haunted forests, and eagle-eye views above oceanic fjords, and scenes of futuristic minimalism—it was all a dream zone soothing you into a trance, fairly tranquil punctuated by moments of bombastic force.
And then the lights came up. An hour had passed. Gorgeous albeit a little sleepy, as is common in Sigur Rós’ work, it was clear the band would turn up the intensity in act two. Easing in, the recognizable “Starálfur” felt like an undersea remix compared to its 1999 original recording, while their first (officially released) new song since 2013, “Óveður” (which debuted in June—watch the Jonas Åkerlund-directed music video below), zapped the audience awake with its crunchy, abrasive electronic crashes. The cozy warmth from before was now a different beast—more of a sweaty palms, on-the-edge-of-your-seat combustion.
The visuals continued to impress conjuring up the sea and the cosmos, abductions, geometric patterns and the blistering lava core of the earth—all as the band steadily increased their intensity, culminating in what must have been a minute-long falsetto exhalation from Jónsi. They roared and soared while frayed pieces of horsehair swung from Jónsi’s cello bow as he shredded it over the strings of his guitar. Fists pumped and the audience rose to their feet as the unlikely rockstars basked in the warmth they now received from the sold-out crowd. Takk, Icelandic for thanks, appeared behind band as they clapped and bowed, deeply gracious for the ecstatic reception.
Next time your favorite artist, the immaculate kind who gives transcendent performances, announces a show anywhere in your vicinity, make sure you’re there.