Recording of December 2005: Takk

Geffen B0005345-02 (CD). 2005. Sigur Rós, prods.; Birgir Jon Birgisson, Kenneth Vaughan Thomas, engs. AAD. TT: 65:34
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Hey, I like things that are grand as much as the next guy. Grand opera is good, any kind of baked good with "grand" in the title is cool—even the sainted subway I ride stops every morn and eve at Grand Street.

But grand rock music is another story, one filled with ego bloat, overripe string sections—er, I mean, "soundscapes"—and (suppress that gag reflex) soaring voices. I blame Richard Wagner filtered through Coldplay for the whole thing, but that's yet another story. Marry anything "grand' to the tinkery, chiefly instrumental principles of progressive rock—which are nothing if not grand—and you have an alien traffic accident waitin' to happen. Add an Icelandic quartet who sing in the nearly impenetrable language of their grandfathers and who titled their last album ( ), and you have a reason to condemn new music and retreat to a listening program made up exclusively of such fuzzy blankets as Coltrane and the Carter Family. But then, you'd miss the persuasive moody fusion of Takk.

Sigur Rós established their pattern in 2000 with the release of Agaetis Byrjun, their first album released outside Iceland: long, abstract jams that begin slowly and quietly, often opening (like "Takk" here) with quavering strings; eventually addingJon Thor Birgisson's high-to-the-point-of-breaking falsetto vocals; live or programmed beats; and much spiral keyboard loomingness.

Nearly everything on Takk, hyped prior to its release as the Sigur Rós album that both radio and the common man would get, fits that pattern, except perhaps for a de-emphasizing of the guitars that were so prominent on past releases. Here, though, Birgisson, Kjarri Sveinsson (keyboards), Georg Holm (bass), and Orri Pall Dyrason (drums) have a sharper if still impossibly ethereal focus. After three albums that were distant and becoming deliberately more obtuse, on Takk Sigur Rós seems to have righted their alchemy.

Takk's most accessible tune, "Hippipolla," begins with a simple acoustic piano figure that blooms into a jaunty near-pop tune complete with layers of overdubbed voices, much good work by a prominent violin section, and a glockenspiel, before winding down into a quiet coda of sound samples and keyboard murmurs. Thankfully, Sigur Rós keeps the orchestral rock excess to a minimum; most of these alluring, often majestic little rock poems clock in at under five minutes. Now, that's accessibility! Even "Hippipolla" and its reprise, "Med Blodnasir," trundle in at a total of less than eight minutes.

Halfway through the album is "Soeglopur," which begins quietly with piano and a delicate vocal part that sounds like a pleading, melodic call—almost an animal howl—before the entrance of a drum kit and mountainous layers of keyboards. A storm of orchestral rock follows in which these elements build to a throbbing climax that cuts off and returns to just piano, metallic keyboard chords, and the same high, childlike voice, pleading and calling. Toward the end, keyboards and vocals follow the same line, and "Soeglopur" closes with keyboards drifting off into a mysterious distance. It's the kind of track you put on thinking it could be background music, then find yourself sitting in front of the speakers, mesmerized by its majesty.

After the bombast of Coldplay, the most obvious influence here (is Jon Thor Birgisson's re-imaging of another Jon: Yes's Jon Anderson. It's a similarity so striking that it will occasionally widen your eyes. Birgisson's voice is at once Sigur Rós's most creative and distinct instrument and, to some, its major annoyance. Listening to too much falsetto sighing or words squeaked out in Icelandic has been known to alter brainwaves. Depending on your taste, Birgisson's pipes will be the band's main attraction or its Achilles' heel.

This is one band for whom compressed, flat sound would be death. As you might expect, on Takk the waves and currents of their music have both the depth and the dynamic range required to give them their presence and power.

What's most gratifying about Takk is that, just when Sigur Rós seemed about to slip off into more theatrics than actual music, more sound effects than structured songs, they've pulled themselves back from the edge and re-energized their best instincts, atmospherics, and ability to turn grim grandiosity into the kind of more buoyant, less troubled whole that will spawn a thousand happy downloads.—Robert Baird