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On a new Sigur Rós album, warmth and light push through the darkness

Members of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (left to right: Kjartan Sveinsson, Jón Ϸór Birgisson and Georg Hólm) have released <em>ÁTTA,</em> their first album in 10 years.
Tim Dunk
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Courtesy of the artist
Members of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós (left to right: Kjartan Sveinsson, Jón Ϸór Birgisson and Georg Hólm) have released ÁTTA, their first album in 10 years.

The music scene in Iceland is very "small-d" democratic. Musicians might rehearse with a symphony during the day and play in a metal band at night. It's therefore not surprising that Iceland's beloved experimental rock band Sigur Rós is kicking off its summer tour Friday with a 41-piece orchestra. The concerts are in support of ÁTTA, the band's first album in 10 years.

Sigur Rós' music, with its lush layers of slow-churning grandeur, has often commanded a symphonic feel. ÁTTA, the band's eighth album, manages to be its most majestic and intimate at the same time. Strings, keyboards and vocals swell to dramatic heights, while bittersweet melodies look inward for release.

ÁTTA came about by chance. Even before the release of the previous Sigur Rós album in 2013, band members more or less went their separate ways. Kjartan Sveinsson, the keyboard player, began writing film scores and classical pieces, while singer-guitarist Jón Ϸór Birgisson, who goes by Jónsi, continued his solo career.

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"It was kind of like an accident," Jónsi told NPR about the reunion. "Kjartan hadn't been in the band for 10 years and he came to visit me in LA and we did a recording jam session in my basement." The two friends, who had been making music together for over two decades, started noodling around and creative sparks ignited.

Then the pandemic hit and the project stalled. But later, after another basement session, and the input of original bass player Georg Hólm, a new album, in all its dark beauty, began to crystalize.

ÁTTA unspools like a symphonic song cycle, with frontman Jónsi's high-flying falsetto often reaching for operatic ecstasy in songs like "Skel" (Shell), which he calls "the emo song," and "Ylur" (Warmth) where the singer stays aloft, riding the spiraling thermals of strings and electronics. Perfumed in luxurious reverb, ÁTTA's dense atmosphere of sound makes it difficult to tell the difference between acoustic instruments and the electronic ones, especially when Jónsi picks up a cello bow to play his electric guitar.

It's also hard to decipher the words — whether they are in Icelandic, or what the group has sometimes called Hopelandic, a series of made-up nonsense syllables. But like opera, where you might not understand the native tongue, it's the music — the band's unerring way of writing melodies that tug at the heart — and Jónsi's expressive performance that conveys all that's needed. Another song in Hopelandic is "Klettur" (Cliff), which sports a lumbering, concussive beat that suddenly halts to allow the heavens to open in celestial light via huge keyboard pedal points and soaring strings.

The music of ÁTTA might, depending on your mood, come off as either gloomy or glorious. Jonsi calls the album "heavy but hopeful" and admits it was written in the shadow of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Yet there are rays of pure golden light in the darkness.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.
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