16 August 2016
Stepping away from the Edinburgh Festival pandemonium on Princes Street, Icelandic post-rock giants Sigur Rós arrived to provide some essential tranquillity and transcendental sensations to the crushed eardrums. Having only had the opportunity to see the band once before, a misspent hour trying to discern their glorious creations above a conga-line of vest-topped ‘lads-on-tour’ types at Benicassim Festival in Spain eight years ago, not disregarding a breath-taking solo performance by frontman Jónsi Birgisson in Glasgow’s hideous O2 Academy around 2009, I highly anticipated this gig inside the capital’s Playhouse arena.
Stepping into the seated theatre arena and observing the stage exhibited in a sylvan display befitting of the menacing Metz-adverts from the late 1990’s, it was clear that this was going to be more of a show – and ultimately, less of a gig. The cinematic projections flickering behind the band trio of vocalist Birgisson, bassist Goggi Holm and drummer Ori Pall Dyrason did little to enhance opener ‘Óveður’ slow-burning and understated entrance. Remaining partially hidden, it was a gentle beginning to proceedings from a band with no new albums since ‘Kveikur’ three years ago.
Despite the minimal movement and the bowed heads of the band through the duration of the show, the graceful birdsongs emanating from Birgisson, presented in the hopelandic approach which the band is so famously lauded for, breathes life into daydreams and sets the audience at ease during songs such as ‘Starálfur’ from 1999 album ‘Agaetis Byrjun’. Ten years since Sigur Rós acclaimed ‘Takk’ album have now passed but there was no suspension of affection afforded to the stunning ‘Sæglópur’ with its uplifting keys, mimicking the Mogwai-blueprint of slow build-up being destroyed by Dyrason’s thundering drums broadly filling the venue, whilst doubling up as pianist right of stage. The glorious strains of ‘Glósóli’ from the same album also resonated with the crowd with its ingenuous, slow-march wonderment suiting the dewy-eyed audience.
It may have been the setting, beautiful as the Edinburgh Playhouse is, which seemed to sit uneasy with me at this point of the concert. The connection between band and audience is non-existent with the exception of a solitary thank you from Birgisson half-way through the set, and the overall output seems poorer for the absence of former keyboardist Kjarri Sveinsson. Even Birgisson looks tired, stripped of the feather head-dresses and playful attitude from years gone by, only once threatening to come alive during ‘E-Bow’ from 2011 live motion picture and album ‘Inni’, before returning to his sorrowful crooning. It could simply be that Sigur Rós are one of those bands who simply work best at home with headphones on and eyes closed, but after promises from the Icelandic trio to showcase a sense of adventure during their forthcoming dates, the concert was at threat of twisting itself into one, long self-hug as boredom crept in. Why exactly drummer Dyrason had to take his shirt off is anyone’s guess as the only bead of sweat in the theatre belonged to the bar manager who opted to close the bar before the first song had finished – a poor move at what, essentially, is considered to be a post-rock gig.7
Of course, there were moments to be cherished too. ‘Hafsol’, the B-side to big hitter ‘Hoppipola’ (omitted from tonight’s setlist) was a tender slice of pop added into the band’s setlist, while ‘Kveikur’, the title track from the band’s seventh album in 2013 is a distorted, ugly rumble showcasing Holm’s bass at its heaviest and Dyrason’s strength behind his kit, all the while red lava spews upon the crimson-lit screens behind. While it is an arduous task for any band to connect with a seated audience, the final number of a fifteen-song set belonged to ‘Untitled 1 – Vaka’, with pre-recorded cello, glockenspiel, and violins all accompanying Birgisson’s lyrics “You sigh low tonight, you’re so alone”.
It was an interesting lyric. Around the Playhouse, the crowd were on their feet, standing ovations awarded to the stage-bowing trio, appeased that they had got their money’s-worth. For this reviewer however, it was a disappointment. No bantering crowd. Lack of connection. Samey-songs. More show than gig. Sighing lowly, I felt alone with my thoughts, unable to connect with what the rest of the audience seemed to be feeling. Once, I had travelled to Reykjavik due to my love for the band and what it represented. Perhaps the expectations had been set too high all along.
Reviewer : Stephen Watt