CD: Sigur Ros, Hvarf/Heim


A couple of weeks ago on Screen Wipe, Charlie Brooker pronounced Rob Dougan's Clubbed to Death "the most overused piece of background music on telly". The trip-hop classic has developed a rather sad afterlife on hard-hitting reality shows, functioning as musical shorthand for "the person currently onscreen will spend the next 45 minutes carrying on like the most unspeakable shit". Still, you wonder how long it can hold on to this coveted title: Sigur Rós' Hoppípolla is already breathing down its neck. If Clubbed to Death has the lucrative introduce-the-reality-show-bastard market sewn up, then Hoppípolla is the track television turns to when it wants to push the button marked Cower Before the Majesty of This Event, Puny Human.

No wonder of nature can be shown, no major sporting competition allowed to reach its conclusion without a liberal application of the 2005 single slowly inflating from a gentle piano figure to orchestral sturm-und-drang. It even turned up in the last series of The X Factor, lending a fitting gravitas to the awe-inspiring spectacle of Kate Thornton interviewing Eton Road.

One suspects that turning up on The X Factor was never high on the Icelandic quartet's to-do list. You need a working knowledge of north Germanic phonology to even contemplate pronouncing their song titles, which arrive in a blaze of diacritics, ligatures and voiced dental fricatives. That's when they arrive at all: their 2002 album had two brackets instead of a name and dispensed with a track listing in favour of a tracing paper booklet upon which fans were invited to draw their interpretations of the music. Their lyrics are often sung in Vonlenska, a nonsense language invented by frontman Jónsi Birgisson. Depending on your perspective, that's either just the kind of blue-sky thinking most rock music lacks in 2007, or an outbreak of pseudery on a scale unseen since the great prog pandemic of 1970-75.

Nevertheless, their last album, Takk ... was by some distance their most commercial, melding woozy guitar textures with musical traits not dissimilar from those of Snow Patrol or Coldplay: anthemic, swelling dynamics, melancholy mid-tempo piano ballads, pounding drums, falsetto vocals. It sounded rather better than it looks on paper: grist to the mill of those who like to believe that Sigur Rós's music has a magical, inexpressible quality.

Blessed with a title that sounds, to British ears at least, like the noise a Saturday-night binge drinker makes while crouched in the doorway of Matalan, Hvarf/Heim is not so much a follow-up as a detour. It offers 70 minutes of music spread over two CDs: the first featuring rerecordings of tracks from their 1994 debut album Von, plus outtakes, the second acoustic versions of better-known songs.

Despite its tangential nature, the first CD encapsulates both what's admirable and what's off-putting about Sigur Rós' music. There's Salka, which shows off both their way with a winding guitar melody and enviable capacity to sound simultaneously wistful and triumphant. Hafsól, meanwhile, demonstrates the band's ability to alight on a sound that's unfathomably appealing: in this case a drumstick being rattled against bass guitar strings, a noise that, improbably enough, turns out to have the same warm, comforting quality as the smell of freshly brewed coffee. But in the debit column, there is Í Gaer, which wobbles unsteadily along the line that separates winning grandiosity from hollow bombast, and the creeping feeling that for all their admirable sonic experimentation, there's often something slightly formulaic about the results. For every moment you're carried along by a song's sweeping loveliness, there's an equivalent moment where you find yourself wondering if their sound isn't a little uniform for its own good: everything proceeds at the same pace, the vocals always wail, enveloped in reverb, you're never that far from a dramatic surge in volume or a string-augmented climax.

It's a feeling that the second disc does little to dispel. The tracks all seem to have been taped in deserted community halls in rural Iceland, or outdoors by fjords and waterfalls, but they're not quite as atmospheric as their intriguing recording locations suggest. Indeed, most of the time, the acoustic versions don't actually sound that different to the originals. Ágætis Byrjun and the instrumental Samskeyti take on a marginally tweedier quality with their guitar effects replaced by a harmonium. The version of Von is a little less cavernous than its incarnation on CD1. On Vaka, the experiment yields real dividends - with the echo stripped away, Birgisson's vocals take on an unexpected visceral intensity - but the rest sounds homogenous: like beautiful background music. Perhaps the next Sigur Rós album proper will depart from the template. For the time being, at least TV producers should be rubbing their hands with glee.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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