Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Tuesday, April 8
Even the most devout fan of Sigur Rós must admit that the band is pretty fucking pretentious. This is, after all, a band that called its latest record ( ), a record on which it opted against song titles; a band that uses its own made-up language for song lyrics. According to the group, this fierce originality is a product of Iceland's demanding creative culture, a culture that has produced such musicians as Björk and, more recently, the critically acclaimed folktronic stylings of múm. Considering the results -- Sigur Rós' jaw-droppingly unique, gut-punchingly evocative, distorted-drone-and-wail music -- all the pretension seems a worthy sacrifice. But nevertheless, it did raise the question: How would all that attitude play out on stage? Would the crowd at Oakland's Paramount Theatre be getting the visionary genius of Thom Yorke, or the conceited detachment of Liam Gallagher?
First off, more bands need to play the Paramount. The place is simply too cool for school. Decorated like an ornate Broadway show hall, it comes complete with angels carved into the proscenium arch and tuxedo-wearing ushers showing you to your seat. The opulence of the place gave us the feeling that we were going to church, or perhaps to a Pavarotti concert. Given Sigur Rós' insistence on playing these kinds of venues throughout the country, this is undoubtedly how the band wanted us to feel. Contrary to the concert listing, which named a band called Anima as the opener, the Album Leaf opened the bill. Though the Album Leaf is a polished quintet that plays warm, melodic instrumentals, it's quite possible that Sigur Rós may be so fond of tapping them to open -- as it has done for the past few years now -- because it makes what Sigur Rós does look really, really hard.
At around 9:30, Iceland's finest took the stage. As the first chords of ( )'s opener (we could call it "Untitled," but all the songs on ( ) are called "Untitled" so, uh, yeah) shook the walls of the Paramount, the assembled urban professional hipsters almost lost their vintage clutch purses. So impressive is that song -- with its simple, desperate melody repeated over and over for six minutes -- that it shut everyone up for the next hour and a half. Seriously; after that, not one person in the audience spoke (and only two cell phones went off). What was most impressive, though, was when frontman Jonsi Birgisson unleashed his falsetto wail. Drenched in reverb, bouncing this way and that off the Paramount's walls, Birgisson's voice was a tsunami crashing over the audience. Now we were getting it: The church-like setting was chosen for its acoustic character, not because it made the band seem cool.
During the next few songs, neither of which were from Sigur Rós' two recent albums, the band purred through glacial drones that filled the room like sleeping gas. Of course, there was a problem with that, too: Maybe it was all the weed being smoked, or the fact that the painkillers had just kicked in, but around the halfway point the crowd was not so much restless as resting. The band didn't do too much to help. Birgisson and his musical cohorts were totally uncommunicative throughout the show, offering nothing in the way of personality. So there wasn't much of a "show" to watch, unless you counted the visual projections flitting across a giant screen behind the band. But those were even more hypnotic, an evolving mix of color swatches and geometric patterns that were just a few bytes short of a screen-saver.
About halfway through the set, Sigur Rós played two of its finest tracks, "Olsen Olsen" from its third album Ágætis Byrjun and the fourth track from ( ). Both are as close to "songs" as Sigur Rós gets, but at this point the musicians seemed as tired as the audience; they ambled through the tunes very much as if this were the last show of their tour, which it was. Ironically, what woke most of us up was silence, which came in the middle of the next song, "Viõrar Vel Til Loftárasa," when the band stopped halfway through for what amounted to at least thirty seconds of total, pin-drop silence. This kind of move can be devastating, as it leaves an audience plenty of time to lose interest, but either because Sigur Rós had put half of us to sleep already or because we were so goddamn captivated, the entire room was dead quiet. It was amazing, like being in a monastery or something. Thousands of people -- drunk and high people, too -- all completely silent and in tune with what the band was doing. Breaking out of the silence, Birgisson and company finally seemed to get into it as the music segued into dense, hell-bent noise. After that came two more tunes, the last of which broke down into total chaos, with the singer falling to his knees, slamming his bow against his guitar in what may have amounted to the most unbridled show of emotion these guys had left in them. By the time the band actually left the stage, the audience was wide awake and drooling.
Sigur Rós played four songs for its encore. The first was an unrecognizable tune played by Birgisson and the string section, followed by Ágætis Byrjun's "Starálfur." Both were fine tracks, but at this point the gimmick was starting to get a little old. For one thing -- let's be honest here -- Birgisson is not singing in a made-up language. Or, more precisely, if he is, the only words in that language are "You saw the light," because towards the end of the show that seemed to be all he was saying. For the third song of the encore, the band played a pitch-perfect rendition of its big hit, "Svefn-G-Englar," and then followed it with the last song from ( ), a tune that features a Godspeed You! Black Emperor type buildup that eventually melts into a chaotic maelstrom of noise, drone, and wash. At this point in the show the buildup/breakdown routine was predictable, but nevertheless cathartic. As its instruments hummed feedback like post-coital groans, the band left the stage, and the audience couldn't get to its feet fast enough for a standing ovation. A few minutes later both Sigur Rós and the Album Leaf came back out for a curtain call. As they bowed, linked arm-in-arm like chorus girls, even the tuxedo-clad ushers seemed appreciative of their efforts. And you can bet that most of us felt privileged to finally be acknowledged at all.
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