With their third full-length, ( ), Sigur Rós have accomplished something magnificent. This is an album that defies description, and by way of its very presentation is catapulted into that rarest of stratospheres, the indefinable sublime.
The album’s title cannot be pronounced, and after hours of contemplation, it can be deduced that those cold parentheses could very well hold everything we’ve known or will ever know. The album’s eight songs have no titles, and their sparse lyrics are comprised of one nonsensical phrase repeated and inverted, twisted on itself to match the musical phrase.
The album’s language – Hopelandic – is decipherable only by guitarist-vocalist Jónsi Birgisson, who whispers its tranquil syllables in celestial falsetto. The music here is meandering and glacial in quality, and allowed to build and deconstruct of its own volition.
Indeed, it seems impossible that Sigur Rós exist in the same world, or even on the same plane of existence, as other bands making music today. Their approach is coldly serene, and their album – packaged with 12 blank pages where liner notes and lyrics should be – is not merely an exercise in pretension like some critics have asserted. On repeated listens, it becomes something wholly moving, a breathing organism with a heart and a soul and a mind.
There are no titles, no lyrics, and no artwork because the music is the thing. To put a label on it would be to imply ownership, and to attempt a tying down of such windswept idealism would be a transgression against something bigger than anything created by a mere post-rock band. ( ) is nothing short of gospel.
The music on ( ) is divided into two sections by a short pause, perhaps to mirror the effect of an LP being split into sides (an art which has lost quite a bit of its gravity in this age of digital downloads). The first four songs represent a meditative, icy studio precision and even a sort of veiled optimism, while the second half take on a brooding, dark quality with lackadaisical – but always purposeful – drumming, bowed guitar drones, and Birgisson sounding a bit like Thom Yorke.
What starts as a quiet rumbling – comparable only to whatever tectonic and cosmic shifts the earth may have felt at her mysterious inception – ends on an epic scale with pounding drums, crashing cymbals, and even distorted guitars and slow-motion poeticism. The songs drone on – the longest, Untitled 7, clocks in at 13 minutes – but they never feel like the workings of a jam band or anything of the like. You never catch a glimpse of a puppet master at the strings; these songs created themselves.
Untitled 3 is perhaps the most devastatingly beautiful piece of music created in this century or last. The toughest and most serious among us cannot help but be moved by its lush piano and organ arrangement. In contrast, Untitled 8, the album’s long-running and chaotic closer, is dark and foreboding in such a way as to release the listener back into reality kindly and with only the subtlest hint of regret that ( ) is over.
( ) is an unequivocal masterpiece that defies explanation. To critique it is to risk misinterpreting it. Here is the best example we have of music that operates on a more than human level, that has its essence in the cosmic clock of the tides and that finds its closest kin in the soil and the sky. An absolutely stunning album, and an undeniable work of genius.