Sigur Rós Sigur RósValtari
One of the most interesting question raised by “Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust”, Sigur Rós' last studio album, was how the band would move on from there. Their most poppy, accessible and immediate release, it could also become a problem for the group in the sense that the next logical step could put them in a dangerous position of musical extroversion. Maybe aware of that, in 2010 the Icelandic band announced they were taking some time off for their personal projects, and also to enjoy the state of maximum personal, and artistic, excitement reached with their album. A few months late - when Jónsi had made his solo debut - almost by surprise, they announced a new album, and everything went back to normal, as if nothing had happened. But the thing is: all kinds of things had happened.
“Valtari” isn't the natural progression from “Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust”, not even a continuation. It rather sounds like an opposed reaction and anti-climactic recording, with the goal of getting the band back into a state of reclusion and expressive and emotional asceticism. It contrasts with the pop euphoria of its predecessor, which, in its turn, becomes the true and sincere reflection of everything that has happened in Iceland over the past two years. Some would even regard it as a nod to the band's earliest fans - those who discovered them in their natural sonic state, with their ambitious ambient soundscapes, epic developments and tense calm - and as the band being short with their new generation of fans, who only started to get interested after hits like “Hoppípolla”. In any case, “Valtari” could be defined as Sigur Rós' ambient record, and, although it's far from a conscious trip to the past historic essence of the group, they clearly dispose of all the habits they've been developing over the last four years.
Apart from “Varúð”, the only moment on this record when the band squeezes the screws and work up their usual storm of electric intensity, “Valtari” unfolds among whispers, placid mid-tempos and instrumental introversion. The guitars are turned into a second-rate resource without any relevance in the composition and execution of the songs. Alongside the rhythm section (blurred on some tracks and replaced by electronic beats on others) they remain in the background, in favour of the keyboards, analogue machines and choral vocals. Mechanisms to provide a radical break with their present, but also with their past. This album isn't a return to their beginnings, basically because they're working with very different instrumental and composition resources (it's all more lineal, without ups and downs; there is no climax anywhere; the volcano implodes rather than erupts). Furthermore, they take on the epic and emotional factor from an ambient viewpoint rather than rock, the starting point of their first albums. In fact, “Valtari” has more in common with the Riceboy Sleeps project and with the soundtrack Jónsi wrote for the film “We Bought A Zoo” than with “ Ágætis Byrjun”. Here they condition that ambient exploration with precious vocals and string arrangements, and with much more song-like structures, whereas the songs on that album were more like prolonged sketches.
“Valtari” will most likely disappoint those who expect another collection of euphoric and overjoyed singles. And it will confuse those who thought that this would be a return to the early days or something along those lines. Luckily, it's neither the former nor the latter; it's more like a parenthesis, or an exception in their career. Maybe it’s a digression born out of the need to express as credibly and honestly as possible the sadness and darkness spreading throughout old Europe over the past few years. There's an air of requiem on the album, but it's a requiem devoid of all grandeur and megalomaniac intentions, rather the opposite: the final part, with “Varðeldur”, “Valtari” and “Fjögur Píanó”, all of them instrumental and guided by a piano, makes it clear that Sigur Rós had never before recorded an album that is so contained, subtle and intimate. That's what “Valtari” is: experimentation, rupture and creative personality at the service of a state of mind.