Album Reviews

Sigur Rós – Hvarf-Heim

(EMI) UK release date: 5 November 2007

Sigur Rós - Hvarf-Heim OK, pay attention, for this may become complicated. Sigur Rós are about to release a DVD entitled Heima, a live film-cum-documentary, featuring many of the Icelandic band’s most loved tracks. Yet Hvarf-Heim is not a soundtrack to Heima, instead being a ‘companion record’ of rarities not on the film and re-recordings of old tracks – some of which, erm, are on the film. Got all that?

It’s an approach typical of Sigur Rós – never a band to do things the easy way, despite now being an unlikely commercial proposition following Hoppípolla’s soundtracking of the BBC’s Planet Earth programme. Yet it’s so much more satisfying than a traditional soundtrack or live album, and it results in an album that will be listened to far more often than a normal ‘spin-off’ type of record.

Hvarf-Heim is split into two records (quite literally – each has its own sleeve). Hvarf consists of mostly unreleased rare tracks dating from between 1995 and 2002, whereas Heim is a six-track disc which showcases acoustic reworkings of some of the band’s most well loved moments. Veteran fans will obviously be keen to hear Hvarf, as it contains the first studio releases of songs that have been live favourites for some years.

A lovely chiming guitar ushers in Salka, an out-take from the wonderful Untitled album, and it’s immediately clear that this is another Sigur Rós record to melt away to. Jónsi Birgisson’s trademark falsetto sounds even more otherworldly than ever, perfectly suiting the eerie, drifting melody. Hljómalind follows, slowly and steadily building up to a shattering crescendo that almost takes the breath away. It is unofficially known as The Rock Song for a reason.

There are parts of Hvarf that are not an easy listen – Í Gær begins like a soundtrack to a fairytale, all twinkling xylophones, before taking a much darker turn with huge walls of guitars piled on top of another. It’s dramatic, disturbing and shows a different side to Sigur Rós that newer fans may not be aware of. Perhaps the highlight of this first disc though is Von, a re-recording of the title track of their debut album – a beautiful nine minutes that ebbs and flows just gloriously.

Hvarf closes with Hafsól, which may possibly be the most familiar track to many here as it was the original B-side to Hoppípolla, a near 10 minute workout that builds up and up to a fantastically uplifting climax. It’ll be around this point you’ll be scrambling for the credit card to order the DVD.

The second disc, Heim, will be of interest to both old fans and new converts. The acoustic settings give some of the tracks an even more atmospheric feel – the devastatingly pretty piano motif of Samskeyti (otherwise known as Untitled #3) sounding even more poignant in this version. Ágætis Byrjun, a very rarely performed number, starts off beautifully – languid and lovely, with Jónsi’s vocals again having that rare ability to send goosebumps shooting up and down your spine.

There’s also an acoustic version of Von, the standout from the first disc, but perhaps the song that will have most fans salivating is Starálfur. It’s a song rarely performed by the band, but the minute those rolling piano chords begin, you know you’re listening to something very special. Mainly backed by strings, it holds the attention throughout and has a superb moment halfway through where everything stops bar Jónsi and a quietly strummed acoustic guitar. Then the piano and strings start up again, and you’ll find the hairs on the back of your neck just won’t stay down.

Completists will also be delighted to see a rare performance of the title track to the band’s second album Ágætis Byrjun, six magnificent moments of dreamy melancholia, while Vaka (the first track on the untitled ( ) album) sounds even more wistful and beautiful than the original. This is music to take with you on a long journey, music to help you transport to another place – just close your eyes and let it take over your body.

While this may not be an official follow-up to Takk, this double album will delight long-standing fans and newbies alike. It may not be music for the ringtone generation, but for anyone who appreciates the understated power and drama that Sigur Rós can do so well, this is an essential purchase.

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