The Land of Fire & Ice (& Rock)

I’ve never been to Iceland, and I don’t know how soon I’ll be able to venture that far east. (I mean, I might take the kids halfway across the Atlantic sometime. But it just costs too much right now to cross the entire pond.)

However, I’ve been 50 yards away from 4 Icelandic guys on 3 separate occasions. And on the basis of the music I heard them create, I can breathlessly vouch for the heart-crushing beauty and magic of that place.

On each of those occasions, I sat in rapt, jaw-dropped, heart-stopped wonder as Sigur Rós somehow managed to both obliterate my eardrums and lull me into a peaceful trance. It’s that fusion of face-melting rock and somnolent ambience that defines the Sigur Rós vibe.

Their songs are guitar-smashing lullabies.

The first time I saw them was in February 2006 at an opera house in Denver.

Then I saw them in June 2008 at Bonnaroo, a music festival on a gigantic patch of sweltering, often muddy Tennessee farmland. Which I’d say is pretty much the exact opposite of an opera house.

Then 14 years later, earlier this month, I saw them at another opera house in Philadelphia.

I’m not much of an opera guy. But listening to Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Rós, sing his heart out at the highest, most glass-shattering register imaginable, in an opera house setting? I’ll sign up for that until the fat opera lady sings. (Or in this case, the wiry, gay, 1-eyed Icelandic rock guy.)

The first time I saw Sigur Rós, I was in the late stages of the bad-decision chapter of my life, in which I relied on alcohol and unprescribed drugs to manufacture good feelings. That night I was under a particular influence (which will remain unnamed), and it blanketed the concert experience in a syrupy haze.

While I was fully blown away by the show, I specifically recall being sharply disappointed in myself afterward that I hadn’t trusted the music itself to be the unparalleled natural high I already knew it to be. And that was, if I recall correctly, the final night that I put myself under that particular influence. A year later, I gave up booze as well.

So I guess you could say the intoxicating music of Sigur Rós helped me start the process of sobering up.

Then two summers later, I saw them play at Bonnaroo, where the oddly juxtaposed headliners that year were Pearl Jam, Jack Johnson, Kanye West, Widespread Panic, Metallica, and Chris Rock (who, quite disappointingly, did not play instruments or sing at all).

The bands I was most excited to see were the lower-billed My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, The Swell Season, Rogue Wave, and Ben Folds. My happiest musical surprise was seeing the legendary B.B. King, who had to remain seated while he sang the blues, just 7 years before he would pass away.

But my #1 priority, especially after my 2006 experience, was seeing Sigur Rós. And true to form, they blew the roof off the giant tent under which I sat on the grass with some newfound friends I had just made.

I hadn’t yet totally given up occasional recreational drug use in the spring of 2008, but for some reason I was staunchly convinced that I wanted to experience Bonnaroo 100% sober. Despite that not being standard practice at a music festival. And it was, perhaps not surprisingly to those of us who have embraced sobriety, 100% worth it. I made friends and felt as (naturally) high as a kite for the entire 4-day extravaganza. And the Sigur Rós show was my highest high.

Now fast forward 14 years. I hadn’t listened to the band quite as much during my 30s, partly because I became obsessed with post-rock and partly because Sigur Rós’ musical output wasn’t quite as euphoric (or prolific), with the noted exception of 2012’s jaw-dropping Valtari.

Jonsi did solo albums that bookended the decade in 2010 and 2020, and the full band did some one-off experiments including a sleep album and scoring a 24-hour road trip circumnavigating the island they call home. But they didn’t release any traditional, and fully new, studio albums after 2013. Nonetheless, I was happy to keep the #3 spot warm for Sigur Rós in my all-time favorite band list, behind Caspian and Hammock, the other two bands that have crafted the soundtrack of my adult life.

Then there I was, suddenly 42, emerging from a Covid cocoon that kept me from seeing any live shows for the better part of 2 years. And as part of a wild flurry of 2022 “comeback” concerts, I finally managed to catch up with my Icelandic muses at a Philadelphia opera house called The Met.

It was my first time seeing them in a lifetime and a half — okay, a decade and a half. It was a densely packed time for me during which I fell in love and got married and moved cross-country and bought a house and watched my wife lovingly (and without pain meds!) deliver the two most beautiful children I’ve ever seen.

Then 6 years later, earlier this month, I witnessed my 3rd Sigur Rós show with my dear friend Nate. I met him 22 years ago, just one year before I discovered the band through the soundtrack of the Cruise-and-Cruz starring Vanilla Sky. (Thanks, Cameron Crowe! I owe you bigtime.) And once again, Sigur Rós blew the roof off. Let me tell you, these guys have had to pay for a lot of destroyed roofs.

I was thrilled to hear my guys play for a whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes. And I was even more thrilled that a preponderance of that time, 15 out of 21 songs, was spent revisiting their first 4 albums, including Takk — which means “thanks” — one of the most fully formed albums I’ve ever heard. There was a particular focus on ( ), their pristinely punctuated 3rd album that was released exactly 20 years ago. (Maybe I love it partly because, as you might have noticed, I’m a sucker for parentheses.)

Between Jonsi’s staggeringly pure vocals — and his signature use of a cello bow on an electric guitar — to Kjartan’s radiant piano to Georg’s imposing bass to the restrained but anchoring percussion elements (plus the string section provided by Amiina, a 4-woman band who used to tour with them and record with them in studio), the live sound created by Sigur Rós is enormous.

It’s tall, and it’s wide, and it’s deep, and it’s vast.

It’s also as mysterious and mesmerizing (and occasionally menacing) as the land of fire and ice from which they hail.

So thanks for the memories, gentlemen. Or should I say…


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