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Sigur Ros
Barbican, London
Yahoo Music (September 2002)

You often hear the invisible when you go to see Sigur Ros live. As the bowed white noise fades into an eiree serenity or the slow-burning rage suddenly tears loose towards a crashing climax, you fancy you can make out all sorts of peripheral extras. There’s an orchestra, soaring and sweeping with the firebrand emotions. There’s a forty-piece choir fleshing out the rise and fall of the melodies. And there, right over there, just on the very edge of earshot, that’s. . . something you’ve never imagined before.

Tonight, there’s no need for the mind’s eye to add in dashes of light and shade and texture. As part of the Barbican’s Only Connect series, in which they invite “extraordinary” musicians to explore the “edgy, exciting and sometimes volatile nature of the creative process”, Sigur Ros have collaborated with composer (and former Psychic TV keyboard player) Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson and “chanter” Steindor Anderson on music inspired by “Odin’s Raven Magic”, the lost chapter of the Norse bible, The Edda.

To aid them in this task, the Icelanders are accompanied by the thirty strong London Sinfonietta and nineteen members of a choir called The Sixteen. There is also what looks like a long granite table in the middle of the stage. This turns out not to be a sacrificial altar, ready for when the seventy minute piece summons up Odin from whatever netherworld he inhabits, but a marimba made from fifty four untreated stones. Clearly, we have left the petty meanderings of post rock far far behind.

It starts with a beautifully mournful piece from the orchestra. Sigur Ros simply sit on their amps at the side of the stage and watch, but somehow their essence seems to inhabit the music, like radiation seeping into a previously fresh water supply. Jonsi adds a touch of bowed guitar, conjuring up the low howl of the north wind as Steindor Anderson steps up to intone ancient Icelandic rhymes and myths. There is a sense of stirring sadness, of history and loss.

It’s a tribute to the strength of Sigur Ros’ talent and vision that they are able to surrender themselves so totally to the collaborative process. There are no squalls of gradual noise tonight, no shifting glacial soundscapes – just the parts that you imagine brought to life on their own. The group’s chief contribution onstage is with the marimba. Taking turns to huddle around it, like elves tinkering away while man ponders and sighs with the orchestration, they add tiny, gamalan-like melodies that seem bright and full of life.

To try and interpret how the music relates to the ancient lore is a fool’s game of course. So here goes. The visuals, created by Sigur Ros, take in the obvious (ravens, at rest and in flight) and the intriguing (pylons, satellite tracking dishes), and this clash of nature and technology has a parallel with the almost apocalyptic feel of what’s being played. This is music on the edge of darkness, made of clockwork and fire, a heartbeat away from nothing at all. When Jonsi introduces a glitched electronica beat, it feels jarring and out of place, but it’s soon overwhelmed by the warmth of the choir. Tradition conquers progress.

There are moments when you let slip of time and go into a semi- trancelike state when you see Sigur Ros live. That doesn’t happen tonight. There is too much going on, too much to keep the mind occupied and rooted in the here-and-now. In fact, there are so many elements to take in that you feel you need to see this twice: once to acclimatise and once to understand. From this performance, only one certainty arises. No other modern group could ever dare to get away with something as audacious and accomplished as this. And no other modern group would know where to start. Sigur Ros are light years ahead.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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