Dimly backlit by currents of glowing fog, the three silhouetted members of Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Rós took their time to fade onto the stage, welcoming the packed Greek Theater softly and patiently. As unreleased opener “Á” breathed a calm sense of wonder through the Berkeley crowd, the theatre remained entrenched in a still darkness.
Sigur Rós’s current tour is a reimagining of the band’s nearly 20-year catalog as a three-piece, performing without founding member Kjartan Sveinsson (who left the group after 2013’s Kveikur tour) and eschewing the vast vibrancy of strings and horns that the band has toured with in the past.
Since the group has been so known for their grandiose dynamics (past tours have featured nearly a dozen backing musicians), the minimal three-piece initially seemed to me like a surprising approach. What about the dense harmonies and sweeping force of their recordings? What about the towering orchestration? The first five minutes of their steady opener legitimized my suspicion that the group may just have a adopted new direction and want to give a relaxed and subtle show.
It only took a few more moments to realize that I should have never doubted how much of a massive and brilliant performance was just waiting to emerge.
As what seemed to be floating lights emanated from the darkness of the stage, I began to realize that the trio was well aware of the massive stage size at their disposal. The warm sea of reverb from guitarist/vocalist Jónsi Birgisson’s bowed guitar was already enough to engulf the theatre — the surfacing lights started to paint the stage as celestial. Bass started to build the body of a growing wave, and before there was enough time to settle among the peaceful stars on stage, LED screen screens were leading us along an animation of a gray, winding river. Even more lights blossomed throughout the shadows from varying depths, and energy swelled from the stage. Echoing drums deepened, pushing and pushing. Jónsi’s voice cut through and further guided the rocketing intensity. By the time the third song, “Glósóli” reached its climax, the theatre was pulsing with life and illuminated with brilliant light.
Over the course of the 23-song set, which included highlights from their 7-album catalog, the massive sound somehow still continued to expand and strengthen at its heights and rest in the tranquil refuge of the show’s more ambient sections. With a 7-8 minute average song length, the set even had an intermission to allow for breathing and expressing awe to neighbors.
But even with the chance that the music didn’t move every last person in the theatre, one aspect of the performance was undeniably impressive and innovative: the lights and visuals. While it’s futile to attempt illustrating the sheer force and brilliance of the moving light with words, I would be doing a disservice to the review by not detailing such an integral element of the performance. The staging was intricately detailed and immersive, with shifting LED screens, 3D frames angling towards the crowd with illuminative rods, geometric, swirling, and celestial animations, and even realtime video of the band among the colorful graphics. While the standard fare of stage fog and directional colored lights had their places too, the visual synchronization of the stage as a whole was so versatile and detailed that its implementations probably cannot be described without the proper jargon unbeknownst to me.
After intermission, the band re-emerged as semi-holograms behind the first LED screen. As a few songs steadily built, glowing green rods appeared to be suspended and shifting to the pulse in midair. During the performance of “Kveikur,” what appeared to be a loose representation of a storm cloud or spaceship sending a energy beam down to Jónsi’s distorted guitar wailing actually contributed to the rare but wholly emanating feeling of terror. Since the band is usually associated with Icelandic visuals of icebergs and volcanoes, the guiding imagery on stage helped unleash a striking potential for emotive resonance throughout the performance. In some sense, the trio’s new backup musicians were their visuals.
Whatever the band couldn’t replicate sonically without a group of touring musicians, it definitely made up for, and exceeded, in passion. Without a sea of other instruments for their sounds to to blend into, each member of the three-piece carried more than his own weight — each instrument and the sound as a whole surged forward with full conviction. Jónsi’s expressive guitar bowing, his body physically pouring directly into each swell, was one of the most unique and captivating aspect of the night. This impassioned level of human performance was particularly impressive given the alien, otherworldly nature of Sigur Rós’s music: monolithic movements steeped in sublime beauty.
Largely responsible for the music’s abstract aura are Jónsi’s legato Icelandic vocals (indiscernible to non-speaking audiences), and his expressive vocals in his invented language “Hopelandic,” which effectively serves as an ethereal instrument rather than lyrical singing. It only makes sense that the crowd would gravitate towards such a stunning light spectacle to fixate on in the face of such a powerful, instrumental performance (at least to the presumed majority of the Berkeley crowd). In fact, the only times the band spoke directly to the crowd at any point during the show were a quick comment in Icelandic towards the end, and “Takk” (meaning “Thanks”) displayed in large letters on the screen as the trio left the stage. It was a characteristically humble departure after such an unbelievably innovate light show and intensely visceral performance.
Takk, Sigur Rós.
Written by Dylan Medlock
Photos by Marc Heimendinger and Christophe Crénel (respectively)