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Sigur Rós’ ‘ATTA’ is balm for the times

Marking a return to their typical style, Sigur Rós’ eighth studio album, ‘ATTA’, is a salve that makes everything good again

Sigur Rós on 4 October last year in Milan, Italy.
Sigur Rós on 4 October last year in Milan, Italy. (Getty Images )

It is easy to become very fond of the music that the Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, makes. Like many others who have become fans of the band, it was their second album, Ágætis byrjun (A Good Beginning), that got me hooked sometime in the very early noughties. A friend played a CD of the album; I had never heard anything like it. It had a musical style with the potential to mesmerise listeners; and its magical properties were capable of soothing and destressing even the most ruffled of mental states.

When I heard them first, they were still new kids on the block. Ágætis byrjun was released in 1999 when the band, then a quartet, comprised Jón Þór Birgisson (better known as Jónsi) on vocals and guitar; Kjartan Sveinsson on keyboard; Georg Hólm on bass guitar; and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson on drums. All of them were in their early 20s; they had formed the band when they were still in their teens.

Since then, they have gained a following worldwide. They are among the very few rock bands in the world that have filled up 5,000-plus arenas on every continent without ever singing in English. Their music has been used in films, commercials and television shows. They were invited to score an episode (in which Homer visits Iceland) on The Simpsons; and their song, Hoppipolla, was used in BBC’s Planet Earth series.

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Last week, the band released their eighth studio album, ATTA (which means eight in Icelandic), 10 years after their previous release, Kveikur.

On ATTA, Jónsi and his reconstituted band, a trio with Hólm and Sveinsson, are accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra. A return to their typical style, the album is like a restorative balm, a salve that makes everything good again.

It was Ágætis byrjun that first introduced me to the band’s style—the centrepiece is Jónsi’s magnificent voice, a falsetto that is incredibly pacifying and mellow, albeit with a hint of melancholy. Jónsi sings either in Icelandic or, most often, in Vonlenska, which means Hopelandic, an invented language that the band uses in many of their songs—nonsensical syllables and sound that convey emotions rather than meanings.

It does not matter really because Sigur Rós’ songs are all about the music—even Jónsi’s vocals are used more as an instrument than for meaningful lyrics. Sigur Rós’s soundscape is marked by its expansiveness; the slow starting tempo of its songs, which often later build up to a crescendo; and an open, rolling, orchestral vibe. And, because Iceland is often associated by many with Norse mythology and a uniquely bleak but beautiful landscape, people, particularly music critics in the West, use those references to describe the band’s music.

Icelandic post-rock is how critics like to describe Sigur Rós’ music, post-rock being the generic name that describes music made by using traditional rock music instruments (guitars, drums, bass, etc.) to make music that has non-traditional rhythms, melodies and chord progressions.

Whether you prefer to link Sigur Rós’ music with their country of origin or not, their music can evoke stories of the endless horizons of Icelandic landscapes that a few of us might have seen in person and most of us are familiar with through visual media. Sigur Rós’ music is in their sonic landscapes and those always tell evocative stories. Their tales weave in and around familiar themes often based in Iceland. The stories are sometimes sad, sometimes triumphant, or hopeful—but always riveting. And, always, featuring sounds that appear, reappear and disappear in different circumstances. Some of Sigur Rós’ oeuvre of albums could seem like a series of novels or, considering their filmic nature, soundtracks without the visuals.

Ten years ago, in their seventh studio album, Kveikur, the band had all but ditched their ambient, ethereal musical trademark for something more aggressive, angry even. The band’s diehard fans lapped it up nevertheless.

ATTA, however, harkens back to the band’s trademark ethereal sonicscape: wide open soundscape; gentle build-up of tempo; and huge helpings of sonic introspection. The London orchestra adds to the soundscape’s vastness and most of the eight tracks (named after numbers in Icelandic) are instrumental. The occasional vocals by Jónsi are in Icelandic or Vonlenska and, as I said, he makes his voice sound like a musical instrument.

Fans had been waiting eagerly for ATTA ever since the band dropped a single from it. The album, with its genesis in the pandemic-induced quarantine period, was recorded at Abbey Road, the storied London studio made famous by The Beatles. It is not, however, the first time that Sigur Rós have recorded there.

According to Jónsi’s interviews to mark the launch, the album was conceived in sessions at the singer’s basement in his Los Angeles, US, home and is a kind of response to the dark period the world was going through. The band too had had its own share of troubles over the past decade, including a face-off with the Icelandic tax authorities over a dispute that has since been settled.

Coming as it does now, ATTA is a tailor-made stress banisher. Grab a pair of headphones, darken your room preferably and play the album. Fifty-six minutes later, you will emerge completely renewed. Honestly.

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