The phrase, “It’s great to watch an artist at work,” does not frequently apply to rock acts. However, Sigur Rós is a horse of a different color. One could definitely say, “They rock,” or “The vocals were great,” but beyond those common reactions, those who’ve witnessed the group play know that what the three-piece band from Iceland does with their guitars, drums, and synths is create ethereal and meditative audio sculptures.
The entertainment, at the packed Hollywood Bowl, began with the novelty act of International Space Orchestra, which is an orchestra comprised mostly of scientists and engineers from NASA Ames Research Center and SETI Institute. They operate under the direction of Nelly Ben Hayoun and the musical direction of two-time Grammy-winning violinist and composer Evan Price. Admittedly, after experiencing the LA Philharmonic perform at Hollywood Bowl, it is difficult to refrain from comparing the musicality of said amazing orchestra to these guys. That being said, it was entertaining to watch an orchestra clad in Nasa-like uniforms with sparkling silver Converse All-Stars perform for a half hour as an introduction to a band whose act is destined to be stellar.
After the scientists cleared off, the stage remained dark as the first synthetic sounds of Sigur Rós boomed through the amplification system. The audience cheered enthusiastically. Gradually, singer / guitarist Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson, bassist Georg Hólm, and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason made their entrances, while the stage remained fairly dark. Using a minimal amount of light, the threesome began their atmospheric set while their smoke machines started cranking. Occasionally, the various LED screens that encompassed the performers would blip an image or a disjointed pattern as if it were on the fritz. This trend continued to the extent that the heavily-processed video images of the band, which appeared on the venue’s dual monitors, would periodically, and jarringly, cut out. In retrospect, this seems to have been by design, as throughout the evening, the image / light show went from minimal and glitchy to beautifully rendered and consistent.
The momentum demonstrated by the song choices mirrored the development of the lighting show. Earlier on, they performed “Samskeyti,” [meaning “Joints”] which has been featured in a number of films (including Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin) and television shows. A couple songs later, the group played “Dauðalagið” [meaning “Death Song”]. This continued the showcase of the band’s filmic music, as the song was featured in the trailer for the Dead Space video game. That being said, the music of Sigur Rós has always had a kinship with film — notably, their songs have been featured in the works of filmmakers who excel at creating alternate worlds and realities, such as: Danny Boyle, Wes Anderson, and the previously mentioned Araki.
While Jónsi’s bowing of his guitar with a cello bow and strong falsetto performance of his Icelandic and Vonlenska [a non-literal language reminiscent of the non-language technique once used by the Cocteau Twins] lyrics cast a spell over the crowd, the performance reached its first peak towards the end of the first set on the jam of “Glósóli.”
For the second set, the atmospheric waves continued to ebb and flow with additional songs which had been featured in various famous film scenes. Among these was “Starálfur,” which was featured in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; and “Festival,” which was featured in 127 Hours. Notably, the songs both occupy climactic moments of these respective films. Other highlights of their set included “Sæglópur,” “Ny Batterí,” “Vaka,” and “Kveikur.”
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As previously mentioned, the visual component of the show built slowly, and it wasn’t until somewhere around the middle of their second set that the monitors began to regularly show solid representations of the band members; this was done, at first, through highly stylized, digital mapping effects and later through impeccably clear, high-contrast lighting which kept the peformers’s faces in the shadows until just after one delicate moment, during “Festival,” when Jónsi sang and held a high note for what seemed like an entire minute. At the end of that note, the limitation of his voice was heard as he took a breath, and the lights finally revealed his face.
The Hollywood Bowl was the perfect venue for this band of artists. While their performance could easily turn any club into an art gallery or any stadium into a spiritual congregation, the Bowl showcased Sigur Rós in the most appropriate light: that of esteemed artists whose sonic output resonated perfectly with the venue’s great acoustics and whose transformational visual component formed a terrific compliment to the lights from the cosmos overhead.