Who would've predicted that one of the more buzzed-about bands of late is an Icelandic quartet with a name no one can seem to pronounce correctly?
Sigur Rós (which should be pronounced "SEE-UR ROES," according to the group) are that band. Record stores couldn't keep the import version of their debut, Ágætis Byrjun, in stock. The domestic issue, which came out in April (see "Sigur Rós Get 'Nice Beginning' in U.S."), was the subject of heated record label battles.
So, when the line to their one-and-only New York appearance wrapped around the block an hour before show time, it shouldn't have come as a surprise.
When the hipster-heavy throng was finally allowed into Irving Plaza the new venue for the show after the band sold out the smaller Angel Oresanz Center in 15 minutes they were greeted with a screen showing a nature scene, not unlike something from the Discovery Channel.
Thirty-plus minutes past the scheduled start time, the screen lifted and the band vocalist/guitarist Jon Thor Birgisson, drummer Orri Pall Dyrason, bassist Georg Holm and multi-tasking keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson meekly filed onto the stage and took their places. And without a word of greeting or any acknowledgment of the attentive audience they began their show.
Birgisson, the band's Thom Yorke-esque frontman, began to play his guitar with a violin bow as the first strains of "Ny batteri" washed over the crowd. Layer upon layer, each bandmember slowly joined in as the song grew from nothing to a full-on wall of sound.
As on their recorded work, Sigur Rós' live show modus operandi was to build a beautiful, noise-heavy piece of work from the bottom up, then crush it to pieces until there was nothing again. It was breathtaking, which might explain the handful of revelers who fainted at the show.
After each song, the crowd patiently and politely withheld applause until every sound had died out, at which point they'd break into a unanimous round of applause. The feeling was not unlike a night at the symphony where it is verboten to applaud before the entire work is complete minus the ornate hall and the much-needed theater seating.
In keeping with the symphonic motif, an all-female string quartet filed onstage for the second number, which was new to those who've worn out their copies of Ágætis Byrjun over the last month. Sweet and emotional, they added a soft element to the sound.
The next surprise came in the form of a giant suited man who took over the vocal duties for two songs. Steindor Anderson, a fisherman friend of the band's, sang the lines of traditional Icelandic poetry as Sigur Rós provided the instrumental backdrop.
Swooning fans and a few chatty hipsters aside, most of the crowd stood, trance-like, through the entire 90-minute show. Fairly impressive considering Sigur Rós doesn't have a single song that bears the slightest resemblance to the traditional pop song form.
True to their anti-pop style, Sigur Rós saved their trump card "Svefn-G-Englar," Ágætis Byrjun's first and only single until well past the midpoint of the show. The closest thing to a ballad Sigur Rós has, it comes with a chorus that sounds as though Birgisson is repeating "It's you," though in actuality, it's just another one of his made-up lyrical tricks (most of Sigur Rós' songs are in a fictional language devised by the frontman).
The true showstopper of the night was halfway through "Svefn-G-Englar," when Birgisson pulled his guitar to his face and began to bellow into the instrument's body. All at once, it was as if his "It's you" was coming from somewhere far-off. As the single resolved to its calm center, the crowd began to hoot and holler as if he were post-rock's answer to Eddie Van Halen.
For the rest of the set, Sigur Rós worked through their dynamic repertoire, adding a few new morsels for good measure. At the end, Birgisson threw down his guitar and bow and stormed off the stage, leaving the rest of the band to finish off the final song.
Proving their rock and roll cred, the band came back for an encore, a multiple-musical-orgasm opus that ended with yet another rock cliché as the drummer knocked his kit over and left the scene.
The audience continued their screaming, whistling and shouting until the band complete with string-players and singing fisherman appeased them with a Broadway-style group bow.
Before he left the stage, once and for all, Birgisson completed his final, unexpectedly rock star-ish act of the night he knelt down and handed his sweaty bow to an eager fan at the edge of the stage.