Sigur Ros Bayou Music Center April 9, 2013
If you ever want to feel like you've completely taken leave of Planet Earth for a couple of hours, might I recommend a ticket to a Sigur Ros show?
The Icelandic group has amassed a considerable following, enough to almost fill Bayou Music Center Tuesday, on the furthermost fringes of rock's avant-garde. Heavy on bowed guitar, pipe organ, and electronic adornement, the music every so often erupts like one of the geysers in the band's volcanic homeland.
Meanwhile, the singer Jonsi has a voice like a cross between a eunuch and a humpback whale and sings in a language he supposedly made up, called "Hopelandic." There is also an existing term for this, "glossolalia," defined by dictionary.com as "incomprehensible speech in an imaginary language."
That might be closer to the truth. But if your eyes have already glazed over, give me a minute.
Fans who are big on pure sensory experience (or certain psychotropic drugs) will find a lot to like in a Sigur Ros show. It's dark. The stage looks like a metal forest with dozens of candlesticks topped by soft electric bulbs. An overhead screen the length of the stage showed an array of Northern Lights, underwater tableaux, entire galaxies and a hooded and masked figure that looked like the Imperial spy droid tailing Luke Skywalker's party to the Mos Eisley hangar in Star Wars.
The music was equally immersive, amniotic even, appropriate because another onscreen image looked like a giant fetus. The keyboards, horns and strings created a harmonically lush landscape, while the bowed guitar forcefully injected more than a little dissonance.
They can also create crystalline music-box melodies that feel as ephemeral and delicate as a spiderweb. Considering the black-clad musicians and all the electric candles onstage, the slower numbers came off as especially ceremonial, even ritualistic. I don't mind telling you once or twice I worried I had somehow joined a cult without even being asked.
But keeping the band tethered to the diaspora of rock music, however loosely, was their drummer. When he was fully engaged, sometimes with a rhythm borrowed from '90s electronica, he pushed the band into the same company as the Flaming Lips or Explosions In the Sky -- epic, but emotive. Radiohead would be too easy, but apt.
Sigur Ros would really be something at a big outdoor festival in the right spot. But let's be real for a second. This kind of music is pretentious almost by design, and two hours of it is exhausting. The second song of the two-song encore was 16 minutes long.
To further translate exactly what was happening Tuesday, here are two audience members I happened to overhear late in the show. One was a woman behind me who responded to an especially wounded patch of Jonsi's singing with, "We love you!" The other was a Bayou Music Center staffer who, same song, greeted a brief pause in the music with, "Make it stop!"
Jonsi and his friends can create quite a musical fairyland, but if you go, it is essential to always know the location of the nearest exit sign.
Personal Bias: Part of me is in awe of Sigur Ros' sheer otherness. The rest of me thinks, "Are they serious?" I go back and forth.
The Crowd: Law school T-shirts. Cargo shorts. High-heeled boots. Very few tattoos.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I sure wish we had seats."
Random Notebook Dump: I wonder what Jonsi is singing about. I wonder if he knows.