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You always know things aren’t quite right when a band starts sending mixed messages, and that’s the case in the Sigur Ros universe.  A couple of years ago we got the old ‘we’re on an indefinite hiatus’, which is always code for ‘we can’t stand the sight of each other’.  Then came Inni, a film of the band playing live and an accompanying sound-track album; both are excellent, but was it a way of keeping the fans onboard before they lost their patience?  Then we heard that Sigur Ros had started working on a new album, but ditched all that material because it wasn’t any good, and fair enough, quite frankly.  But now, almost completely out of the blue, or the misty green if the sleeve is anything to go by, we have Valtari – the sixth studio album.

That should lead to wild partying in the streets, especially for those of us who’ve been following the band from the beginning, but, regrettably, there’s more to worry about.  During interviews to promote this latest record the members of Sigur Ros have been saying things like ‘we were going through old songs that we’d previously discarded and found things that weren’t so bad’ and ‘we rediscovered this bit and that bit and just stuck it all together and – hey presto! – a new tune’.  Even more concerning, it appears that the band had to give the lot to Alex Somers, the partner of lead-singer and guitarist Jón ‘Jónsi’ Þór Birgisso, to make something of the whole wretched mess.

So, is it a mess or not?  On first listen, yes it is – the songs do indeed feel like scraps.  Some of the songs sound like not-up-to-scratch intros to songs from previous albums; one, ‘Eganda’, the opener, sounds like a whole bunch of said intros stuck together with masking tape and without much care.  Apparently for a while there somewhere the band was working on a choral record and elements of that remain on Valtari – the most obvious is ‘Dauoalogn’, which is Sigur Ros at its most ethereal, although the title translates as ‘calm death’.  Yes, on this record, the title of which means ‘steam-roller’, we’ve heard it all before.  There’s the ground-swelling, at times ground-breaking prettiness, Jónsi’s pixie-esque falsetto and cello-bowed guitar, and, all in all, the big Icelandic landscape atmospherics.  ‘Varuo’ is a case in point, which, it has to be said, is a Sigur Ros promised fulfilled.

After a few listens, however, half a dozen say, especially if you’ve got a fire going, you’re a bit pissed, and you have a feeling that the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket, Valtari as an album starts to make sense – glorious sense.  What Somers has managed to do is craft from off-cuts an extraordinary suite of songs, which, as a whole, is closer to the magical Riceboy Sleeps album he made with his partner than anything in the Sigur Ros back catalogue.  Although, of course, this is still Sigur Ros.  And that does pose a problem for the band: what on earth do they do now?  I can’t help hoping that this is it, and I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be it; it certainly does sound like the credits are rolling.  Even look at the pic above: they’re walking away from us.

I used the word extraordinary before.  Is that really appropriate, considering the mind-blowing music that Sigur Ros has made over its twelve-year career?  Yes, it’s necessary.  In the end, this is an elegant record: it’s graceful, it’s refined, and – here’s another word that has to be used – beautiful.  However, Somers knows that there’s dark in the light, gravity in the uplift, danger in the sugar-sweetness.  He’s allowed the band to take their sweeping, majestic post-rock sound to its conclusion.  And there I go again, don’t I, using words of endings, because I can’t get away from that feeling that on Valtari we’re hearing the sound of an ending.  If you’re not convinced, or have never been convinced by Sigur Ros, search out the title song from the album – it’s hard to imagine an ending more exquisite than this.  And Jónsi doesn’t even sing on the bloody thing.

I’m writing on a windy, drizzly, overcast Goulburn day.  I’ve had to triple-peg the washing on the clothesline otherwise it will end up down the street.  On the Tuesday just gone it was so windy – with gusts of 80km/hour we were the windiest place in the state – that one of my standard rose-bushes was decapitated; I’ve bandaged it up with masking tape and, miraculously, it seems to be recovering.  The chooks aren’t coping as well: Mrs Honky became poorly during the wind-storm and proceeded to go downhill until I woke up yesterday morning to find her still body on the floor of the run, the score marks of her legs in the dirt as if she thought she could outrun this.  But I noticed that she was making small, long, slow breaths, so I got down to a crouch.  She opened her eyes and looked at me, or at least in my general direction.  A few minutes later I returned to the run with gardening gloves and a large plastic bag.  She didn’t open her eyes, and her body was no longer breathing.

So here I am today, with the wind and the drizzle and the overcast sky.  And Inni by Sigur Ros playing on the television.  If there’s been one constant in my life since 2000 it has been Sigur Ros, the band that plays music which sounds like the earth is simultaneously falling apart and coming together, all because they’re from Iceland.  I’ve been with the band since their miraculous Ágætis byrjun album.  At first, I wasn’t taken by the enigmatically titled ( ) record, until I realised that I’d played it non-stop for eighteen months.  He Who Likes To Sing Along To Some Songs and I were lucky enough to see the band play at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney just before the Takk album was released in 2006, so that record will always remind me of how we downed a bucket-load of vodka and soda before the band took to the stage, and when they did how overwhelming it was – there were tears, that’s what I can tell you.

In 2007 Sigur Ros put out Hvarf/Heim, which is a cross between a b-side collection and live footage of the band playing intimate shows across their homeland.  And then came Med sud i eyrum vid endalaust (meaning ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly’), the record with the young folk doing a nudie run across the road on the cover.  For the first time Sigur Ros worked with a producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey et al), and the production is more three dimensional, the songs more varied, even if Med sud contains ‘Ara batur’, which is so widescreen Hollywood that you expect some trout-mouthed actress to leap out of the speakers and try to whisk you off to the altar.

And then the band went kaput, at least a temporary-hiatus kind of kaput.

But now we have Inni, which is the essentially the soundtrack to a film of the band playing live in London in 2008.  Where I’m from, for $39 you can get the DVD, two CDs, and the album across three vinyl records, which is quite a bargain.  In Inni, Sigur Ros sound more aggressively electric, which is no doubt because they aren’t playing with Amiina, their regular four-piece string section.  Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is in extraordinary form, somehow sharing the secrets of his life even though we English-speaking types have no idea what he’s saying because he uses either Icelandic or his own made-up language, or an infuriatingly appealing combination of both.  As usual the band around him is both tight and expressive, although loose-limbed drummer Orri Pall Dyrason can sometimes sound as if he’s barely able to hold it all together.

Jonsi, who in the footage looks like a cross between Jimmy Hendrix and Adam Ant, and his almost pitch-perfect falsetto and his way of playing the guitar – with a violin bow – is undoubtedly the focus of Inni.  But just as important is the film-work by Vincent Morisset.  It is grainy, it is gritty, it is menacing.  Morisset takes us onto the stage, almost as though he wants to give us a first-person experience of the band.  He does not say, look how popular and talented Sigur Ros are; instead he takes us inside the band and beyond.  I mentioned the word menacing, and it’s an appropriate word for Inni.  Sure Sigur Ros can be pretty and beautiful, and yes sometimes they have their Enya moments, but there’s darkness at their core, a terrible darkness; anyone who’s noticed the David Lynch-esque motifs in Heim will know what I mean.  Morisset reveals the band’s gravitas by focussing on the musicians and their music; how revealing are these four men, how unafraid they are of being emotional.

There’s very little sweetness and light to Inni, which is a good thing.  Especially for days like this one, with the gale-force wind howling around the house, the grim sky, a dead bird in the garbage bin, and a rose-bush stuck together with masking tape.  Because if Sigur Ros says anything it’s this: work fucking hard to live the deepest life possible, because there’s nothing else.

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