Live Music + Gig Reviews

Sigur Rós @ Royal Festival Hall, London

16 June 2023


The reconstituted Icelanders join forces with the London Contemporary Orchestra at Christine And The Queens’ Meltdown, and premiere four tracks from new album Átta

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023 (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

If there was any doubt that the Southbank Centre’s artist-curated Meltdown Festival still possessed the capacity to surprise after 28 years, it was dispelled by Sigur Rós, a band who’ve been in operation for just as long. Releasing Átta, the Icelanders’ first new studio album in 10 years, without warning on the night before this first of a run of sold-out orchestral performances ensured that barely known new material would be premiered alongside reworked picks from across their storied career.

The line-up has shifted since their 2013 album Kveikur. Gone since 2018 and not replaced is drummer Orri Páll Dýrason, while keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson returns to join mainstays Jónsi and bassist Georg Hólm. The personnel changes seem to have been instrumental in dialling back tracks with dramatic beats and focusing instead on soaraway, strings-laden songs, resulting in an album its creators have termed more introverted than what went before. Accordingly it feels less as though the orchestral arrangements have been bolted on to what they’d be doing anyway, but rather integral to it. Indeed for the new material, it is.

Tonight the trio are assisted by, and somewhat subsumed in, the unshowy 41-piece London Contemporary Orchestra, helmed by Robert Ames. An intimate mood matching the music is created by pole-mounted yellow bulbs which dot about and between musicians who, with their instruments and chairs, completely fill the entire stage, the band members carving out little spaces in amongst it all. As par for the course with Sigur Rós, nobody speaks to the audience, and there’s no set or backdrops; this is to be two sets of serious music by serious musicians. At various points across the interval-punctuated two sets Jónsi seems to disappear into the smokey gloom while his inimitable countertenor voice wails plaintively away, still a unique boyish calling card even as he approaches his half century and still capable of causing tears to well up even at his mostly incomprehensible lyrics.

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023 (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

Given the orchestral set-up, it is not a surprise to find that there’s no room for beaty post-rock numbers; indeed there’s nothing at all from Kveikur. Instead, four new tracks, with the set opening Blóöberg setting the scene with its slow pulse and reflective mood like a last sigh, are interspersed among a setlist that majors on the floaty, spacey and introspective aspects of their catalogue, a fair chunk of it not having figured in Sigur Rós shows in quite some time. Best of the new tracks in this set is the epic 8, Átta’s closing track, with (relatively) strident vocals and grounding piano that combines and then falls away to leave but an outline. From Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, Fliótavik’s minimalist piano-centred construction showcases Sveinsson’s return, the strings colouring in emotions at the edges. The opening notes of familiar songs bring about sporadic recognition in applause, especially for the unmistakable keyboard twinkles of Starálfur, complete with heartrending strings and Hólm on the acoustic guitar outro. There’s space too for the celestial Andvari, Von (live) and Dauðalogn. The first set closes unexpectedly with the elegiac Varðeldur from Valtari, with Jónsi tiptoeing his way off stage while his colleagues continue to play.

The second set opens with a pair of tracks from the Untitled ( ) album, both keyboards led, with the reflective Untitled 1 – Vaka giving way to the bright piano notes of Untitled 3 – Samskeyti. As well as offering that voice, Jónsi alternates between his trademark bowing of his guitar and, seated, playing some kind of keyboard instrument the identity of which is obscured in the gloom. Two further new tracks, Ylur and the utterly beautiful Skel, are played back to back. The soporific Untitled 5 – Álafoss, shorn of its dramatic drums, follows later, along with a pair from Takk…, the twinkly-into-oompa Sé lest and – with requisite whoops of recognition – the none more positive sounding Hoppípolla, famously used to soundtrack David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series.

They close out with mournful Ágætis Byrjun track Avalon, and the orchestra take their leave one by one, even as calls for more go unheeded, the faithful perhaps surprised not to be treated to set closer staple Popplagið. For that, drums would be needed, along with someone to play them. But this orchestral version of Sigur Rós is questing in a different direction, though with no less emotional heft, and rediscovering anew in the illustrative beauty of the sum of their many little moments.

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023

Sigur Rós, live at Meltdown 2023 (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

Sigur Rós played:
Set 1: Blóöberg, Ekki múkk, Fliótavik, Von, 8, Andvari, Starálfur, Dauðalogn, Varðeldur
Set 2: Untitled #1 – Vaka, Untitled #3 – Samskeyti, Heysátan, Ylur, Skel, All alright, Untitled #5 – Álafoss, Sé lest, Hoppípolla, Avalon


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