Calling Sigur Rós’ astonishingly beautiful new album Valtari a tad predictable is a bit like criticising the way hoarfrost shrouds a valley, how a shaggy Icelandic pony gambols in a field or why waves crash against a desolate coastline. Listening to Sigur Rós do what it does best — conjure an august, poignant soundscape that feels driven by Nordic sea and sky, warmly cloaked in a Guðrun & Guðrun jumper — is always a visceral, meditative experience. Yes, the brisk stomps that cropped up like daisies on the band’s last release, 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, are banished on Valtari, which, given the meaning of the album’s title, rolls back to the band’s inchoate years of mist and mood. The environmentally-driven yet emotionally-slaked grandeur that has always served as Sigur Rós’ muse, as insightfully documented in the film Heima, is an inexorable trait of the band. There’s just no getting around the fact that the fifth unofficial member of this Icelandic collective will always be the otherworldly terrain, temperamental weather and feral spirit of the group’s homeland.
Sigur Rós took a notable four year break following Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust but Valtari’s epochal, sprawling tracks makes the gap seem far longer, as if the group has reconnected to its younger, more serious self. In a sense, they have; many of these songs are actually plucked and patched from older material. Fresh paths forged by frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s freewheeling, playful solo album Go, his theatrically kinetic solo shows and and pop-leaning score for Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo are far removed from this stately, windswept album, its celestial poetry seemingly conceived in fjords or cathedrals. The hesitant, dewdrop delicacy of ‘Fjögur piano’ and the lonely majesty of ‘Varðeldur’ are soothing elixirs for aching heads embattled by texts, emails, crashing economies and 24-7 news cycles. The sun salutation of ‘Ekki múkk’, one of only two truly new songs (the other is ‘Ég’), is nearly eight minutes of indefinable beatitude nursed to spectral heights. As much contained symphonies as songs, the eight percussively-spare tracks on Valtari, not one clocking under five minutes, aim angelically heavenward; ‘Dauðalogn’, with its faint murmurs of Tuvan throat singers, choral contemplation and church organ, guided by Jónsi’s own echoing, aerial liturgy, is a feverish prayer buoyed by clouds.
Whether Jónsi, bassist Georg Hólm, drummer Orri Páll Dýrason and multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson — who has chosen not to tour with Sigur Rós this year — will continue to find artistic inspiration as a quartet is a valid question; this album isn’t quite a retread, but it’s not entirely new either. Yet admirers of this wildly original band’s sound — as reliable as summer rain — will feel sated by this nearly hour-long journey; Valtari testifies to Sigur Rós’ staggering depth of artistic integrity.