Live Music + Gig Reviews

Sigur Rós @ Hammersmith Apollo, London

29 March 2006

An evening with Iceland’s favourite post-rockers isn’t so much a gig as a complete experience, carefully crafted from beginning to end. Before the lights have even dimmed, the warm up music is pared down industrial plinking that somehow seems perfect for a venue that’s in the shadow of the Westway.

Outside, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of identikit goth girls wandering around recognising one another across the pelican crossings, but inside the crowd seem remarkably normal, the usual West London indie crowd enjoying the acoustic advantages of a larger venue than the band graced on their previous UK tour. The mood is relaxed and the crowd expectant.

First out are the usual – but lately respelled – suspects Aniima, a four-piece all-girl collective who are not so much Sigur Rós‘s regular support as an integral part of their whole. Alternating between gently nightmarish electronica interspersed with cathedral chimes and lullaby xylophones, there’s a touch of the Rachels about the way you can’t be entirely sure when they’ve finished tuning up and moved on to the real thing, but that’s far from a criticism.

Then they put the nursery instruments aside and transform into a string quartet, albeit one which occasionally swaps in a saw as the fourth instrument and uses sparse, wordless vocals as another part of the music. They finish by proving they can rock out, with a bassline that makes your skin vibrate before they bow, curtsey and make way for the main event.

Down comes the curtain, drawing an ethereal mist between the stage and the audience. The fans move forward and as the crowd inch forward, cinematic light shows begin to play against the gauze that separates the stage from the real world, segueing into a red mist through which the sound of Takk’s post-apocalyptic hand-clapping and Jónsi Birgisson’s choral vocals soon emerge.

It’s hard to tell where the projection ends and the shadows begin, drawing untouchable lines around a band who deliver both what the crowd want and what they expect with a set list that includes such favourites as Ny batteri, Glósóli, the soon to be rereleased Hopppolla – given new legs as the theme to a trailer for the BBC’s blockbuster series Planet Earth – and Olsen Olsen. Many of the accents around have travelled a long way to see their heroes, and they recognise most of the songs from the first few notes alone.

Birgisson’s oral gymnastics, his use of his guitar (played with a violin string as often as with his fingers) and his ability to bask in the harsh light show walks a thin line between post-rock art noise and Scandinavian death metal at times, but he always stays on the right side of the industrial gothic divide thanks to regular proddings from the rest of his carefully-selected entourage.

A brass band section, the assistance of Aniima on additional instruments and, not forgetting, the rest of Sigur Rós, fills the stage with more than a dozen musicians at times, providing everything from slow, layered funereal laments to angry post-rock attacks over the filmic backdrops which feature feet stomping through the mud, foetal faces and negative images that enhance the evening’s proceedings.

At one point, we’re even treated to a faux military marching band who wind their way across the front of the stage in Guardsmen’s jackets. The slower numbers are comforting, relaxing the audience into their bassy comfort and when things get noisier, you’re ready for the excitement. Even the early threat of technical problems can’t dull the mood – though this is not a band who you imagine could do acoustic, you know they won’t let you down.

The mix of traditional rock and chamber music instruments is nothing unique anymore, but Sigur Rós pull it off as well as Low or Godspeed or any of the other pretenders to the throne. Playing more than an hour and a half, Birgisson ends with Heysatan, holding a single note longer than anyone should be able to without having to breathe, teasing the audience into thinking he’s finished, then handing over to the band to play out the main set with a thumping drumline.

Barely time to catch your breath and they’re back for the encore, performing Popplagið behind a screen that merges them into the images of a broken TV set. As the screen flickers with dying transmissions, Birgisson dares the closest to a traditional guitar solo he’s attempted all night, pulling it off brilliantly in front of an audience who’ve been given what they paid for. Returning to the front of the stage for a final bow and the applause of the crown may be a theatrical pretension but it’s well deserved by a band who wrote their script a long time ago and are now honing it to perfection.

buy Sigur Rós MP3s or CDs
Spotify Sigur Rós on Spotify

More on Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós @ Royal Festival Hall, London
Sigur Rós – Átta
Sigur Rós – Odin’s Raven Magic
Festival Review: Citadel 2016
London Gigs: 11-17 July 2016