When last we in the UK came face to face with Sigur Rós it was in rude Sunday afternoon light as they played the penultimate headline slot at Bestival 2012.
Despite the general consensus being that they performed pretty admirably, the band were quite obviously ashamed of their set, which they insisted was something best experienced in the dark; a stipulation which, according to a public apology which surfaced a few days later, they had agreed upon with the festival organisers far in advance and been denied at the last minute. Whilst many saw this statement as unnecessary or even childish, it is apparent tonight in the gorgeous Brixton Academy exactly why they felt an explanation was necessary.
Before Sigur Rós, backed by a plethora of other musicians despite now only officially being a three-piece, even take the stage we can see this is going to be a mind-blowing visual performance. A huge, thin layer of gauze flutters between an audience itching with anticipation and the Academy’s colossal stage, behind which silhouettes can just be made out amidst oceanic green and blue lights. The band appear, wordless, behind it, and after breaking convention by opening the set with a brand new song, begin the pitter-patter of piano and glockenspiel melodies that introduce ‘Í Gær’.
Lights blare as a thunderclap of percussion rings in droning bowed guitar and screaming harmonics, and we’re given our first taste of the thematic stage changes that occur from song to song throughout the performance. Between the deep hellish red that accompanies ‘Vaka’, the ferocious laser show that pierces every corner of the academy during ‘Brenninsteinn’ – a wonderfully bizarre new track that sounds like an industrial collaboration between Jónsi and Nine Inch Nails, and a hugely promising preview of what’s to come from the band’s next release – and the heart-rending display of figures clutching orbs of light atop cliffs behind an incredible rendition of ‘Varud’, Sigur Rós have brought an incredible smorgasbord of visuals tonight, the first of three London shows.
At some point the gauze drops, and even without the gargantuan screen behind them and the somewhat apocalyptic lighting above, a fairy tale-like grotto made up of light bulbs on slim stands scattered across the stage, fluctuating slowly from one side to the other, create a warm perpetual glow around the Icelandic musicians.
Ever a man of few words in both his songwriting and his presence, from start to finish not one word passes Jónsi’s lips – besides those hidden in his own cooing, often ‘Hopelandic’, melodies. The audience, uniquely, mirrors this; there’s no muttering, no shouting and practically no movement whatsoever throughout the show. By the time the band reach the most consistently joyful stretch of the set, consisting of ‘Hoppípolla’, its glorious reprise ‘Með Blóðnasir’, and ‘Olsen Olsen’, our faces are broken into grins of elation as the playful melody springs from the flautists fingers and gorgeous forest-fire-esque visuals paint the band in deep maroon light.
A state of total awe grips the crowd as the otherworldly frontman performs his now-famous party trick of holding a note for a staggering length of time in the shortened-for-stage first half of ‘Festival’. By the end of the two-song encore Jónsi has enraptured the crowd to the nth degree, singing fiercely into his guitar’s pickups during ‘Svefn-g-englar’, theatrically tossing his bow to the side and knocking his microphone stand into the audience as the closer, ‘Popplagið’ reaches its bone-shattering climax.
The band reappear for the last time to finally drop their solemn stage personas and bow, smiling, to waves of rapturous applause. It’s been a live experience incomparable to others, because ultimately Sigur Rós remain, even at this late stage in their career, an absolutely fascinating collective, capable to surprise in many more ways than immediately meets the senses.