Sigur Ros “Inni” announces itself in jarring fashion. Sustained guitar noise, processed, strummed not with hands but a violin bow. Overtones hover in the air and explode into shards of distortion that doesn’t so much break the silence as crash into it. The untrained ear can only process it as “noise”. And I suppose it is, in its way. It’s chaotic, without a direction. A numbing monotone were it not for harmonics which rise and fall, ebb and flow, morph into others like colors on an artist’s palette left out in the rain. Those colors bleed, each retaining its singular tone even as they drip into others to breed a new one.
Yet the image on the screen is in blunt black and white. As if the filmmaker expects his audience to provide the hues based on their individual responses to the music.
Wait, did I say “music”? Ah, so I did. And so it is, in a sense, depending upon how traditional your definition of music is. If your rules are strict, limited to Bach, the Beatles and practically everyone else working within the Western tradition, then no. It’s not even close to being “music”. You might as well go to a construction site and listen to a jack hammer for 10 minutes. On the other hand if you appreciate the works of Stockhausen, John Cage and Einsterzende Neubauten you probably understand exactly what I’m talking about in describing the intensely LOUD sound that assaults you when the curtains are drawn on “Inni”.
The white shapes that coalesce on the black screen turn out to be vocalist/guitarist Jonsi, sawing his way through the introduction of “Ny Batteri”. Bent and bowed (no pun intended) he seems a man possessed. encased within a whirlwind of sound. A sonic tornado blowing over him with such force that he would be knocked over if he weren’t hunkered down. He hears every overtone, every harmonic…or does he? No, he’s as lost in it as everyone in the theater. It’s practically out of his control. All he’s doing is opening a door. The only power he has is the ability to close it by twirling the volume knob on his guitar down to “0”. Something which he does not appear to be willing to do.
When he does, when he puts the bow down and turns it over to nature, there is a sense of relief. Hard work, to be sure, but fulfilling. We’ve made it through the blast, through the fire to the other side. Georgi smoothly eases into the mix with a bass line that is, for lack of a more proper term, “serious”. Haunting, maybe. Grave. Something to bring us back and ground us in tonal music. Joined momentarily by Kjartan, playing an organ that’s straight out of an old horror movie. Eerie. Ghostly, even. Together he and Georgi lay down the chordal template of the song.
At this point Jonsi sings the first vocal note of the film. Which only means that now the show has progressed from intense to incredible. Would I be a Sigur Ros fan if Jonsi weren’t in the band? No. Not ashamed to say it, absolutely not. Then again, the band would not be Sigur Ros without him. And I don’t mean that as disparaging to the other members. More than many other bands currently recording and touring, Sigur Ros is reliant not upon individual talent but on the rapport, interaction…yes, the chemistry between Jonsi, Kjartan, Georgi & Orri.
This is the theme of “Inni”. It’s the guiding force that helps raise it above the typical “concert film”. The concentration evident in facial expressions seeming to provide some kind of ethereal understanding of, and a window into, how they translate these songs. Songs which seem so bound to the studio, re-animated into living documents.You can see the strain on Jonsi’s face as he shoots for one of the impossibly high notes, then holds it. Georgi stands stock still, almost a mannequin, intensely concentrating on keeping the whole thing anchored. Kjartan looks like the consummate musician, fine with the idea of remaining in the background, fully aware that his contributions are essential. Orri pummels his drum set with wild abandon, looking almost visibly shaken after the songs final down beat.
Together they create a sound that seems untethered to time or space.
What they’re doing has evolved past the point of mere music making into the realms of art. Into the crown chakra space of high art. They wouldn’t admit it. No false modesty within the ranks of Sigur Ros. Who is to say that they even realize it? That they even comprehend how good they are? As obvious as it is to their devoted fans, one gets the sense that all four of these musicians are a humble lot, appreciating their success, unconcerned with validation. Pretentious? Ah, the “P” word. Some people would likely think so, after all it does seem kind of gimmicky for a band to have a guitarist who wields a violin bow and sing many of their songs in a language that does not exist. Still, the true believer understands. He realizes that the bow draws out a sound that swells in a manner that fingers or picks could never produce. That the “language” is nothing more than Jonsi sculpting the sonics of a completely unique tool of expression. Turning his voice into nothing less than an ambient musical instrument. Every song that is sung in “Hopelandic” is an instrumental song. When you can grasp that you will find that there is no novelty to it. Yes, its been used as a selling point for the band and that obviously makes it seem hoaky. But you need look no further than an interview they gave on NPR, easily found on YouTube, to realize just how apathetic they are to the hype. Not only apathetic, but actually annoyed.
That particular video clip is shown in “Inni”, along with several others shot at different stages of the band’s existence. They provide a dash of color and lightness to the foreboding darkness of the film itself. One clip is especially interesting: a camcorder trained on the small stage of what must be a very small, cramped club. Four young men shuffle into their respective positions …teenagers, from the looks of ’em, who vaguely resemble the four men in Sigur Ros.
Of course, its the hypothetical mustard seed of Sigur Ros. They take their places and for what seems like hours we’re treated to the sight of Jonsi bent down twiddling the knobs of the guitar effects pedal at his feet. On and on and on, it must be an especially difficult setting he’s meticulously shooting for. But eventually he does find it and the group begins the set. Kjartan playing guitar in this particular song, he softly picks a melody…
At which point, depending upon the level of devotion you feel for the band, you will be amazed that the song he’s playing, ringing out in this claustrophobic Icelandic pub who knows how many years before their breakthrough record was released, is “Popplagið”. Also known as “The Pop Song”, this 13 minute catharsis was the endpiece of their third album, “()”, an album that helped weed out the people who just wanted to hear “that song from ‘Vanilla Sky” and threw out the bait for the ones who would eventually really “get it”. Sigur Ros has always been a “you’ll either love ’em or you’ll hate ’em” kind of band, and “()” went a long way towards sorting those two extremes. “Popplagið” is the thundering orgasm of “()”. It’s sense of sturm un drang is rivalled only by the jaw dropping power of its build-up. The band’s critically acclaimed film “Heima” is capped by this rocket blast of a song. And rightly so. It’s not my favorite Sigur Ros song (that would be “Glossoli”) but I would have to concede that most people would find it to be their most intense. So it’s a revelation to learn that this kind of musical alchemy has been practiced by the band from the very start.
Perhaps obviously then, “Popplagið” sends off “Inni” in grand cacaphonous style. Truncated a slight bit it nevertheless retains it’s power. It’s one of the absolute best versions of the song I have ever heard. Jonsi’s vocal prowess here, and throughout the film, is so well-developed it is a force of nature. He does little things, small tonal variations, an extra consonant here or one less there to make it fresh. I really don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a thing of pure innocence and beauty. The juxtaposition of those qualities with the rumble of the music is quite something to behold.
What, did I say “rumble of the music”? Yes, and quite literally at these “Inni” screenings. They’ve bussed in a huge sound system to compliment the film. Loud. Loud. Loud. Personally I can do without all the decimals, but that’s just me. My hearing ain’t what it once was, you know. Maybe sheer volume helps drive home the intensity of the music for some people…as for me, it’s not necessary, especially with Sigur Ros.
The experiences tucked between “Ny Batteri” and “Popplagið” are every bit as worthy. Musically and visually. Perhaps the highlight of the set is a version of “Festival” that should be impressive to even those who don’t care for the band’s music. It’s a mood piece in two parts, the first being almost a solemn prayer and the second all out jubilation. The recorded version has a few really nice vocal sketches weaving through the break, playing off of one another, complimenting counterpoint. It add’s quite a lot to the song, but in every live performance I’ve heard they have not used it…most likely it’s not something they can replicate in a live setting, what with all the overdubs. No matter, this “Inni” version almost makes up for its absence. Jonsi one again genuinely wows, sustaining one note for at LEAST a full minute, if not longer. He sings, 15 seconds pass, the audience applauds, the sound subsides, the 45 second point arrives and he’s still holding that note, the audience really goes wild, the whoops, hollers & applause hold steady for another 5-10 seconds until they realize he’s not stopping any sooner than anyone would dare think was possible and when he finally DOES let the note die, well sir, you’d be a fool not to join in with the crowd. It’s so mind-blowing that the audience in the theater where I saw the screening actually began to applaud.
Conspicuously absent from “Heima”, Sigur Ros’ first really big “hit” is a centerpiece of the film. “Sven-G-Englar” was the introduction most people had to the band. It’s a good representation of their overall style, though I personally have grown weary of it. Overkill, yes it’s possible even with Sigur Ros. Nevertheless the rendition of the song in “Inni” is so impassioned and inspired that it’s hard for me to dismiss it as “just another song I’m burned out on”.
“Vid Spilum Endalaust”, along with the YouTube bits, cuts the edge and inserts a joyous feel into what is otherwise a serious affair. Ethereal and angelic, yes. But undeniably serious. “Vid Spilum Endalaust” tosses the gravitas out the window with a rousing sing along and the uplifting strains of a brass horn section. This particular sequence shows not only the rapport of the musicians but the camaraderie as well. So many bands are cursed with bad feelings between members. Some actually come to hate each other over the course of years. One gets the feeling, watching the way Jonsi, Georgi, Kjartin & Orri interact, that they have been best friends since day one and, even better, will remain so until the sad and terrible day they call it quits.
“Inni” in the theater is an awesome experience. To share it with a room full of total strangers is a unique exercise. The “bigger than life” quality is always good. But I have a feeling that it will hit it’s target in the home theater as well. I won’t say “better” but I’m confident it will be every bit as good to see and hear on your own system. It was recently released in DVD format as part of a package that also contains 2 CDs of the material along with other tracks. Maybe it’s a good introduction to the band. I wouldn’t want to go out on a limb and say yea or nay on that one. Personally I think “Heima” is probably better for that purpose, or even just a good hearing of “Takk”. Right or wrong on that front I nevertheless CAN pronounce “Inni” as worthy of being in the Sigur Ros catalog. More than “Sigur Ros finally got around to putting out a live album”.