Sigur Rós - Wolverhampton Civic Hall
When you're still pulling multi-coloured confetti butterflies out of your hair in the morning, then you know you've been to a good gig the night before. Best gig ever? Quite possibly. 'Radio-who?' comes to mind. I won't lie and pretend I'm a Sigur Rós devotee (although maybe I should speak in the past tense now), only owning Takk and new album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust prior to the show. I had probably heard, like you, the remainder of their back catalogue being used and abused by any sentimental TV moment that wanted in on the music's emotional resonance. After their showing at Wolverhampton, the first stop on their UK tour, that back catalogue should be with me in 2-5 days, thankfully devoid of the sickening talent show images that usually accompany.
Before I unleash my torrent of praise - really, you should stop reading if unrestrained gushing sickens you - a moment please for For a Minor Reflection. It would be so easy to write off four guys - sound familiar? - from Iceland - ringing any bells? - who go in for slow-building, skyscraping instrumentals - oh, c'mon! They're dressed down, looking like any run-of-the-mill UK guitar band, but these Reykjavík lads prove they are up to the challenge of supporting one of their country's biggest musical exports by stirring up a great big fucking storm with merely two guitars, bass and drums. Their songs organically fuse extended minimalist intros with intense and surprisingly heavy climaxes, as if attempting to explode Explosions in the Sky out of, erm, the sky. It's hard, with all the resemblances, not to judge them against the band they are supporting so I'll just put it this way: if Sigur Rós were this good live when they were putting out their first album, one can only look forward to the major accomplishments of For a Minor Reflection.
Following the gargantuan sound created by these four little guys, ears are ringing and anticipation mounting in the half hour that separates future and present cult favourites. Only, with a UK leg that is completely sold-out, it's apparent that Sigur Rós, despite not being a 'number 1 album' band, are touching the hearts of music afficionados and so-called Joe Bloggs. It's encouraging to see loads of young 'uns accompanied by their parents and just as heartening, standing six rows back and centre, to be in the midst of that electrifying tingle of building excitement that precedes so few bands nowadays.
They're worth the wait before a single note is played, emerging as a smartly dressed but eccentric bunch that may or may not be poking fun at their revered status with their drummer's choice of headgear: a big ol' crown. Still, it takes a while for that to register when lead singer Jónsi Birgisson stands before the mic looking like an otherworldly elf ready to go to battle with guitar and violin bow. Of course, their appearance is entirely secondary as soon as opener Svefn-g-englar - y'know, the one with that vid featuring the dancing kids - begins its delicate unfurling before us lucky folk in the audience. And we are so lucky that it takes, four songs in, celebratory new single Við spilum endalaust to shake us from our hushed and rapt attentiveness and for us to realise it's okay to, you know, dance a bit. For all of their beautifully crafted melancholy, the band have displayed an equal penchant for the life-affirming, none so more than on this year's album. One of many highlights comes after Jónsi, who forms an instant audience connection despite his ethereal shyness, leads the audience in a short but sweet singalong immediately followed by the expectedly rousing 'polar bear song' Hoppípolla. That four men can create such splendour is astounding - admittedly, they're armed with more instruments than the support but gone are the brass bands and string sections that have accompanied them on previous tours. You would think this makes for a more stripped-back sound but, although fewer bodies onstage does create a more intimate feel, the songs still soar.
Take Sæglópur, for instance; leaving their posts to join Kjartan Sveinsson around his piano, the other three members plonk away on glockenspiel and other assorted kit during the song's protracted intro (see photo above) before returning to drums and guitar for the resounding moment where the drama really kicks in. It's one of my favourite songs and its epic nature is translated flawlessly into a live setting. God help me then, when it is followed by newie Festival wherein Jónsi's falsetto vocal touches a place music rarely does. There's one girl next to me who is sobbing to the point of dry heaving - were it any other gig, I would be all about the scorn but, as it is, I'm trying to hold it together long enough not to join her. Coupled with the beautifully controlled maelstrom of Sæglópur, this one-two punch, waiting to pack its emotional whollop mid-set, is the cathartic highlight of the night.
Alas, as the mood threatens to become too sombre, it is lifted once again with the upbeat Inní mér syngur vitleysingur and Hafsól, during which either Jónsi's violin bow - which, thus far, he has been using to play his guitar with all night - or something resembling a piccolo, that Georg Holm has been tapping against his bass, is thrown into the crowd and caught by some lucky sod a few feet away from me. A building communion vibe is furthered by new fan favourite Gobbledigook, which is preceded by the house lights being turned on and the band requesting all in attendance - yes, including you up in the balcony - to stand and aid in the song's use of handclaps. Decked out with a drum each, For a Minor Reflection return to the stage to offer further percussion help before the song bursts into life, all giddy 'lalala's and aforementioned handclaps - which, result, everyone is helping out with - before the confetti bursts forth from above upon an unsuspecting crowd (well, unsuspecting only if you didn't see any of the band's televised festival performances this year). The smiles plastered on people's faces say more than I ever could.
Although this would be the perfect note to end any gig on, the band still have not one, but two encores to please the front row diehards. Their first return is perfectly judged, coupling the restrained Viðrar vel til loftárása and All Alright and silencing the crowd to that mythical 'hear a pin drop' point. It's up to second encore Popplagiðle to shake the cobwebs away and, trust me, the ringing in my ears even now, three days later, tells me it succeeded. Proving they can wig out with the best of 'em, the band make an almighty racket as if this is the last song they'll ever play, with Jónsi going at his guitar with his bow - which he either kept hold of or, employing his Scandinavian elf magic, conjured out of thin air - like a possessed madman. It ends the night on an unsettling sonic assault, as if to remind us all that they can do discord and reverb as well as lush and grandiose.
Bowing to a crowd ready to fall at their feet, Sigur Rós are seconds away from leaving the Civic stage and there's no time to dwell on any negatives. But what negatives? So, yeah, there was no Glósóli, Gong or Ára bátur but even considering complaining is just downright ungrateful. It's one of the best shows of the year - heck, it's one of the best nights of my year! 'Shoegazers'? Pfft. They had me, and doubtless the whole crowd, looking up and to the skies.
*Pictures courtesy of the decidedly non-Icelandic - but just as cool! - Stef Purenins.
svefn g englar
við spilum endalaust
inní mér syngur vitleysingur
viðrar vel til loftárása