Sigur Rós, Magma, Lilly Allen and Others Who Speak in Tongues

Sigur Rós and Magma

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

One of the odder things about the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, whose album Valtari came out this week, is that Jónsi Birgisson tends to sing in a combination of Icelandic and Vonlenska, or "Hopelandic"--the latter is an invented pseudo-language that uses Icelandic phonemes but doesn't quite coalesce into words with particular meanings. I couldn't tell you whether the lyrics of Valtari's first single, "Ekki Múkk," are in Icelandic or Hopelandic or both, but here's the intensely minimal video they released for it.

Still, Sigur Rós are hardly the first band with an ethereal guitar sound, an air of opacity about them and a charismatic but mysterious vocalist who sings in an invented language. The British trio Cocteau Twins pulled that off thirty years ago--here's the video for their 1982 song "Garlands," which seems to be partly in English and partly in singer Elizabeth Fraser's personal idiom.

The disadvantage of singing in an imaginary language is that it's hard to communicate specific meaning; the advantage is that, since everyone will be equally confused, you can make a case for universality. The "pop transcends language" argument turns up most often in the context of things like the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual Olympics of three-minute singalongs, whose championship round this year took place in Azerbaijan on May 26. (In the past, Eurovision brought a handful of artists to international prominence, notably ABBA and Celine Dion.)

The second-place Eurovision entry in 2003 was the Belgian folk-pop group Urban Trad, with a song called "Sanomi" sung in a language they'd invented. Their silver-medal performance is below. Warning: it involves flutes, bagpipes, fake scratching noises, and a beat that seems to have descended from the Soul Searchers' "Ashley's Roachclip" by way of Enigma's "Sadeness."

The most widely used fake language for pop, though, has to be Simlish--the nonsense clusters of sounds that are used as language in the Sims games. A surprising number of artists have re-recorded their English-language hits in Simlish; there's even a Simlish-language video for Lily Allen's "Smile."

You may recall Australian teen star Gabriella Cilmi's Xenomania production "Sweet About Me," which I mentioned here last week. As it happens, Cilmi has also recorded a Simlish version of "Sweet About Me," as well as the behind-the-scenes video that appears below.

But the grand prize for dedication to invented language in pop music belongs to the French band Magma, who have been recording and performing on and off since 1969, almost exclusively in Kobaïan, a language invented by their leader, drummer, chief songwriter and occasional vocalist Christian Vander. Magma were, and are, very, very heavily invested in science fiction; their early albums set out the core of their mythology, collectively telling the story of a war between Earthlings and a splinter group of humans who have settled on the planet Kobaïa and become enlightened.

Kobaïan, singer Klaus Blasquiz has explained, "… has of course a content, but not word by word." Nonetheless, it's got enough semantic reliability (and enough words more or less in common with familiar languages) that some superfans have compiled a Kobaian-English dictionary. Vander's operatic, bombastic take on the ideas of progressive rock is also kind of a musical language of its own. There's a little cluster of bands directly inspired by Magma, whose sound tends to be referred to as "Zeuhl"--a word of Kobaïan that means "celestial music." Here's a clip of Magma in 1975, performing their song "Theuz Hamtaahk" ("Time of Hate").

The most ferocious modern descendants of Magma are another drummer-led group, the Japanese band Ruins. Their music owes rather a lot to Vander and Zeuhl, although Ruins' lineup has generally consisted only of drummer Yoshida Tatsuya and one bassist or another. They're also arguably the least Sigur Rós-like band in the world in every aspect other than singing in a language of their own. Here's a raw 2003 video of Magma performing three of their songs, beginning with "Pallaschtom" and continuing with "Snare" (an instrumental that uses only the snare drum and one bass chord) and "Ghallalvish Perrdoh."

Of course, if you make up your own words, people are going to interpret them any way they want. Hence this stroke of genius: KleistGeistZeit Pictures' "Philosophy War," a video based on deliberately mishearing the lyrics of Magma's "Mechanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh" as an English-language commentary on Slavoj Žižek, the Middle East, Yoko Ono and The Lord of the Rings.

Proving that the universe is collapsing inward on itself, someone else has made a misheard-lyrics video for the Pussycat Dolls' Simlish version of "Don't Cha." In other words, it's sense translated into nonsense and back to something like sense. Deciding which set of English lyrics is better is left as an exercise for the reader.