Sigur Ros a musical island unto themselves
By Michael Machosky
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 6:20 p.m.
There's a reason ABBA didn't sing in Swedish. It's the same reason Scandinavian metal bands tend to flesh out their macabre lyrics in English.
If you want to sell music outside your home country, you pretty much have to start singing in English.
That's still the consensus, but at least one band has proven it wrong. In fact, Sigur Ros, have gone about as far as you can go in the opposite direction. Not only do they sing in their native Icelandic — a language almost nobody speaks — they also released an album called “()” in a completely made-up language dubbed “Hopelandic.” There were no song titles, either. It was a wild success, particularly in America and the United Kingdom.
Now, they're selling out venues like Madison Square Garden, scoring films, even getting animated in “The Simpsons” for an episode, “The Saga of Carl,” set in Iceland. Sigur Ros also is coming Sept. 19 to Stage AE in Pittsburgh.
“If someone 20 years ago told me I'd be in a band from Iceland, singing in Icelandic, and I'd be playing for, sometimes, 15,000 people per night, I wouldn't have believed it,” says Sigur Ros' bassist Georg Holm. “As kids, we loved watching other bands and seeing big audiences and all that. But we were just playing music, not really thinking that we'd be playing these big arenas someday.
“But at the same time, when I think about it, I think our music is really good. I think, ‘Yeah, we deserve it.' ”
This was only possible through a combination of not caring, and supreme self-confidence. Even Icelandic bands don't sing in Icelandic. The island's only other star, Bjork — herself one of the most creative, unpredictable figures in pop music — sticks (mostly) to English.
Their music has a vast, cinematic sweep and reverb-laded dreaminess to it, rejecting verse-chorus-verse song structures in favor of relentless experimentation. Singer Jonsi Birgisson's soaring vocal falsetto is usually treated like another layer of instrumentation.
Along the way, they've picked up fans of weird indie rock, electronic ambient music, Pink Floyd fans drawn in by their complex, long-form epics, and even metalheads intrigued by their mysterious theatricality.
Perhaps inevitably, their songs get compared to crackling glaciers and vast, frozen volcanic wastelands of their home. These aren't associations that they reject, exactly, but they aren't just a product of their environment.
“There is this idea that Iceland, because it's so isolated, the need to create something is because of boredom, basically,” Holm says. “Long, dark winters — you have to pass time in some way. People find ways to express themselves writing a book, becoming a painter, or musician.
“I'm not 100 percent sure that's true. But there is a creative energy in Iceland. If you meet someone on the street, like a 14-year-old, and ask him if he's in a band, I'd say, 99 percent of the time he'd say yes.”
One thing that sets Sigur Ros apart is its almost complete lack of antecedents and influences. They literally sound like nobody else.
There's considerable variation within their sound, however. Sigur Ros' latest album, “Kveikur,” is considerably darker and more rocking than the somnambulant, slow-moving orchestration of 2012's “Valtari.”
Next, the band will appear in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” which seems like the perfect combination. It's a show about swords, sorcery and 100-year-long winters, after all.
The exact nature of their involvement isn't yet clear. It would be hard to top their experience with “The Simpsons,” though.
“It's like, ‘Where do we go from here?' ” Holm says. “It's definitely an honor. They contacted us, and asked us to do some music. We thought that was it, and were kind of biting our nails — ‘I wonder if they'll actually draw us into the cartoon?' And they did. It was actually amazing. High-fives all around.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.
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