When Sigur Rós released their concert film Inni there was a special edition version available to those with enough cash that contained a piece of cloth from the band’s torn up uniforms. Such an act might have been an indication that Sigur Rós were drawing a line under their past with one eye on the future or that there was no future whatsoever. When the band announced that they’d scrapped a series of recordings and were entering a period of hiatus, things weren’t looking particularly positive.
Tearing up their history (in less literal form) seemed to be rather important for Sigur Rós. Their last studio album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, was a deliberate step towards a more commercial sound; fans questioned the direction the band was heading in. Now, following Jónsi’s solo album and tour, Valtari returns the band to more familiar territory.
Part of Sigur Rós’ charm is that it often takes some time for their songs to fully come into focus. Such is the density of their compositions that it can require considerable effort to fully comprehend and appreciate exactly what is going on. Valtari is arguably the band’s most unfocussed, hazy work to date. As a result, it is also a challenging album.
Valtari started to take shape back in 2003 when the band began to entertain the notion of recording a choral album. The concept slowly ground to a halt however, apparently due to a lack of focus (something of a theme for this album). Pieced together from a mash of ideas and sonic experiments recorded over the years, it is almost certainly this way of creating the album that has contributed to Valtari’s almost impenetrably abstract nature.
The swirling, directionless ambience of Ég Anda introduces the album beautifully, and is a masterclass in scene setting. It gradually unfurls into a lush soundscape for Jonsi to coo over gently before concluding in a rumble of bass and a clunking of broken musical boxes. Recent Record Store Day release Ekki Múkk takes over as Ég Anda fades out, but it’s only familiarity that indicates that a new song has been introduced. The essence of Valtari is one of an ambient symphony with track definitions becoming insignificant as they roll into each other, and the band explore new textures and tones via exposition rather than wiping the slate clean and starting over. The only song that stands out Varúð, a kind of Hopelandic version of Hallelujah. The choral influence is at its most pronounced here thanks to its rousing refrain that finds Sigur Rós briefly taking it to church. It’s also the only song that sticks to the post-rock doctrine, and towards its conclusion it explodes in that familiar build into a thunder of drums.
Elsewhere the mood is far more tranquil. Dauðalogn is a delicate pastoral piece that floats effortlessly like a butterfly in a chapel, and manages to evoke a sense of Christmas (thanks in part to a very brief vocal melody that hints at Walking In A Winter Wonderland). The final three tracks are purely instrumental (Jónsi’s falsetto becoming an instrumental tone rather than a focal point), yet despite the lack of a definite focal point are utterly enthralling. Varðeldur and Valtari continue in the layered abstract nature explored on the rest of the album, whilst closing track the delicate strings and piano of Fjögúr Píanó closes the album in a stripped back, but by no means less emotionally charged manner.
Valtari is a complex album and time is required for these songs to become truly effective. Once their beauty becomes apparent however, it becomes clear that Valtari is up there with Sigur Rós’ best work.