Sigur Rós and the Art of Worship
Sigur Rós and the Art of Worship
If you're a Christian in America, you've likely heard of Sigur Rós. You might even know a superfan who will go on and on about the sheer beauty of this band's music. Though the members of Sigur Rós do not claim to be Christians, you may even hear the word "worship" pop up in a discussion with fellow believers.
This phenomenon is a bit baffling given that Sigur Rós is from Iceland, and its outspokenly gay bandleader Jón Þór Birgisson (Jónsi for short) sings in his native tongue. Well, usually. Sometimes he doesn't use language at all. Jónsi also sings in a form of gibberish that's been dubbed "Hopelandic." Nevertheless, search YouTube and you'll find a mashup of the Sigur Rós song "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur" and Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name" from Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Community Church. I can't say I'm a fan of this attempt, but the point is, once Sigur Rós has made it into a Willow Creek worship service, the band and its perceived worshipful qualities cannot be ignored.
Sigur Rós—named after Jónsi's little sister and directly translated "victory rose"—plays a version of post-rock, a subgenre that also encompasses bands such as Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai. Post-rock usually eschews a typical verse-chorus-verse structure and plays liberally with dynamics, glacially progressing from whispery to thunderous several times within a song. When vocals are used at all, it's less about lyrics and more about the texture and melody the voice adds to the overall mix.
On previous releases and new album Valtari, which releases today, Sigur Rós employs these tactics (and others) with a level of skill unmatched by its contemporaries and predecessors. If the band's previous studio album, 2008's Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, was more "pop," Valtari is the opposite, focusing more on atmosphere and ambience than distinct songs. One of the standout tracks, "Dauðalogn," sounds like what you hope would happen if Gregorian chanters, a boys' choir, an ancient pipe organ, and the London Philharmonic created a band to accompany a magnificent yet somewhat androgynous soloist who sings in what could be the language of angels.
That angelic quality is part of the "worshipful" package. No one makes Icelandic or gibberish sound more heavenly than Sigur Rós, and the band has cultivated a mysterious, otherworldly image to go along with the music. To wit: The cover of Sigur Rós's breakout album, Ágætis byrjun, looks like the glowing ultrasound of an alien baby, complete with wings; Jónsi often performs in ornate outfits with colorful scarves and feathers and usually plays his reverb-laden guitar with a bow. On Inni, the band's black-and-white live documentary and accompanying live album, Sigur Rós is cast in bright white light amid the shadows, and the band has also been known to perform behind a white, gauzy sheet. All that to say, when my subconscious couples the gorgeous music with that mental backdrop of images, it's not too far of a leap to imagine Sigur Rós as a band of angels praising God in an unknown tongue.
Having a singer is an important aspect, too. While I'm certainly a fan of Explosions in the Sky and do find elements of their guitar-based, instrumental post-rock worshipful, it doesn't communicate in quite the same way Sigur Rós can. It's not hard to import your own meaning onto any slab of instrumental music, but there's something significant about hearing and singing along to actual lyrics, even if it's technically just syllabic nonsense. Sometimes we don't have the words we want to say or pray or sing, but we want to say or pray or sing something.