THOM YORKE said rock is dead.
If it's true, then welcome to the New Age. And it sure
does sound New Age-y. Where once there were chunky power
chords and fabulously dramatic tom rolls bashed out
to the timeless tune of "I-love-getting-fucked-up-and-pissing-my-parents-off,"
now we have music that sounds like the aural equivalent
of a sine wave made audible.
But just because every Mogwai, Tortoise and Radiohead
are rocking the house with angularly ambient tone poems
that sound more like a fax machine on ketamine than
rock 'n' roll, doesn't mean that the genre is as D.O.A.
as it may first appear. Take Sigur Rós, for example.
Hailing from the famously misnamed island of Iceland,
Sigur Rós is one huge exception to the post-rock equals
boring rule. Epic and elemental, its songs are exceptionally
beautiful sonic collages that seem to channel both the
wintry spirit of Iceland's cold mountains and glacial
lakes and early Cocteau Twins, while at the same time
possessing a warm, uterine quality that envelopes the
listener womb-like in a sea of languorous tranquillity.
(Hence, the New Age comparison.)
But though its songs lack any of old-school Rock's traditional
bombast, they are not fey or twee in the least. In fact,
because its songs seem to speak in the same magic language
as a fiery sunset or an alpine meadow, they're equally
able to create a powerful and emotional, if more subtle,
atmosphere than the standard "I-need-you-so-bad, baby"
fare that we've subsisted on for the last fifty years.
Nevertheless, whether it's killing rock 'n' roll or
saving it, Sigur Rós can't be bothered.
"It's very nice for people to say that," said bassist
Georg Holm, responding to the assertion that Sigur Rós
is saving rock 'n' roll, "but we're not actually thinking
about anything that anybody says. We just play our music
and do it."
akin to old hippies than nü-school modern rockers, Sigur
Rós has reportedly turned down offers from both Gap
America and British Telecom, among others,
to use it's music in corporate advertising. (Though
they did grant Cameron Crowe the right to use the song
Ágćtis Byrjun in his next film, Vanilla Sky). Similarly,
while the band says it doesn't mind rock clubs, it prefers
"There's an atmosphere in churches that's really nice,"
explained Holm. "It's not the same as the normal rock
venues, which can smell like 10 years of sweat. We like
to choose our venues quite carefully."
Perhaps that's why at home the band chooses to play
such moody and atmospheric venues as inside the Reykjavik
Art Gallery or outdoors at the Icelandic Sorcery and
Witchcraft Festival. Perhaps. But it's not just the
venues the band's picky about; they also want the crowd
to be appropriately focused as well. In a New York
Times Magazine article from April 22, 2001, Holm
is quoted as saying, "I think we didn't play live much
because it was hard for us to get used to people talking
loud during our shows," referring to the band's early
years. "It still bothers us," he concludes.
But if the band comes off as a little pompous for trying
to dictate how and where their music will be experienced,
instead of grateful for the exposure, maybe they should
be congratulated for having some integrity rather than
vilified for their unwillingness to take the money and
Citing a short missive he once posted on the band's
Website, regarding their desire to change music, Holm
said maybe the band's whole attitude has been misunderstood.
"I wrote that I wanted to change music, blah, blah,
blah, and I think it's still true in a way," offered
Holm, "but I think it has more to do with the music
business-there's all these rules and it has to be done
this one way. Why? Who says?"
Food for thought for a lot of up and coming bands these
days, but also a lot easier said than done. However,
if the proof really is in the pudding, then Sigur Rós
might just be poised to bust up rock's tired roll into
vapid meaninglessness, as some critics have suggested.
Where most bands are content to mix up a batch of rap
'n' metal stew or throw a few kraut-rock brand carrots
into their third-rate expositions on the evils of modern
technology, Sigur Rós actually seem to be interested
in making music.
Formed in a small town outside Reykjavik in 1994, the
band of preternaturally elfin-looking high schoolers
honed their majestically ambient sound by playing long,
slow instrumental jams for hours at a time, often focusing
on a single riff.
By 1997, finally ready to come out of the woodshed,
the band began performing and released its first EP
"Von." After releasing two more EPs in 1999 and 2000-"Svefn-G-Englar"
and "Ny Batteri"-on the British label Fat Cat, the band
finally began to receive some attention from the British
music press. In spite of a huge ball of hype rolling
straight for them, ready to squash everyone's expectations,
and the band's coronation as the "it" band of 2001-when
Radiohead asked them to join its fall European tour-the
band is still remarkably able to keep its collective
head and focus on music.
"Every show is special to us," explained Holm, defending
the band's music-first attitude. "But we don't like
all the stuff that goes along with it. We don't like
to pose for photos and pretend to be someone you are
Of course, this might simply reflect the famously taciturn
Icelandic nature, rather than the will of a bunch of
media-literate rockers. Nevertheless, any band that
chooses to sing in Icelandic and Hopelandish (singer/guitarist
Jón Thór Birgisson's made-up language), can't be trying
too hard to impress American label reps. But what really
makes Sigur Rós a compelling choice for the latest round
of the "savior of rock 'n' roll" awards is the fact
that they flat out rock without rocking at all.
Songs like "Ny Batteri" and "Staalfur" are so eerily
primal and sexy (two rock adjectives if ever there were
any) that they immediately qualify as rock music, even
if you'd be hard pressed to identify a verse, chorus
or guitar solo anywhere on the album.
Whatever the state of rock 'n' roll-whether it's alive
or dead-if you like music for music's sake, then it
really doesn't matter, because in Sigur Rós you have
a band that is interested in creating music for the
sheer joy of it. No retro posturing. No choreographed
dance routines. No carefully crafted mystique. Just
"People always ask us if growing up in Iceland has had
an influence on our music, and it's probably true,"
noted Holm. "But I think the music you write reflects
the person you are."
Allan Martin Kemler for Crud Magazine© 2001