On 'Átta,' Sigur Rós Embrace Beauty for Its Own Sake

BY Max HeilmanPublished Jun 16, 2023

It's been a long decade since the last full-length album from Sigur Rós. They've kept busy enough during the 10 years following 2013's Kveikur, having released archival EPs, orchestral collaborations and therapeutic sound baths; still, the more pressing occurrences within the Icelandic export's gap in albums became the dishonorable discharge of their longtime drummer Orri Páll Dýrason, and the reenlisting of keyboardist, multi-instrumentalist, and orchestral arranger Kjartan "Kjarri" Sveinsson. Now a drummer-less trio, Jónsi (vocals, guitars), Goggi (bass), and Kjarri set out to carve out another facet of their distinct post-rock sound. Unsurprisingly, Átta leans more on the "post" than "rock" side of Sigur Rós, but that doesn't prevent sweeping dynamics, arresting melodies and deep atmospheres from offering a cinematic, cathartic ride.

With or without percussion, Sigur Rós haven't lost their drive to breach the gates of heaven with pure sonic euphoria. Even as an intro, "Glóð" ascends into the stratosphere astride expansive drones, as manipulated samples of Jónsi's signature falsetto guide harmonious strings out from the ambient gloom. Átta's sheer immensity owes itself to the return of Kjarri's classical sensibilities to the Sigur Rós sound. His attention to detailed textures and conspicuous crescendos allows the single "Blóðberg" to centre on billowing, glacial string swells. Jónsi intuitively follows the song's gradual shifts, remaining both fluid and precise in his rise from a surprisingly low register to piercing high notes.

Though Sigur Rós have highlighted their ambient side in previous releases, Átta separates itself from albums like 2012's Valtari with one crucial factor — size. In fact, the lack of percussion works in the favour of "Skel," allowing its cascading washes of violin and piano to speak all the louder. Kajarri actually manages to intermingle some dissonance into the euphonic proceedings on "Mór," but never at the expense of Jónsi's angelic timbre. Over such magnificent mountains of orchestral brilliance, his voice spans from a gentle stream to an overwhelming torrent.

A percussive undertone eventually manifests through a bass drum heartbeat on "Klettur," but even such a small addition totally shifts the vibe. Goggi's gritty bass tone also gains more prominence here, while the strings take on a more acrobatic form, springing from hypnotic thuds into passionate refrains. These extravagant passages find a compelling counterbalance with "Fall," where Jónsi's bowed guitar finds intimate chemistry with Kajarri's resonant piano chords. Completed by minimalist low-end from Goggi, the track allows Átta's lofty heights to settle on three musicians coaxing vulnerable emotions out of each other.

Overwhelming beauty has long been Sigur Rós' calling card, so deeper cuts like "Andrá" and "Gold" don't exactly reinvent the wheel for the band. Rather, both numbers serve as a reminder of the musicians' singular approach to melody, harmony and dynamism. Whether the former's lonesome acoustic guitar and diverse singing range or the latter's reverberant piano chords and hushed rhythmic pulses, the band produces an entirely unique aura. At their most sparse, lush or everywhere in between, Sigur Rós produces soul-rending experiences as easily as breathing.

That ease of execution makes Átta easy to get lost in, even for a Sigur Rós album. In a discography full of immersive wonderlands, these songs seem especially fitting to experience in one sitting. Free-flowing transitions almost go without saying for the shimmering washes and blurred instrumentation of "Ylur," but the journey from "Glóð" to "8" becomes so fluid that concluding the 10-minute closing track doesn't feel like the end. One doesn't simply listen to five minutes of Sigur Rós at their most grand, and five more at their most delicate, without an urge to retake the journey.

Átta proves that Sigur Rós' sense of scope has yet to diminish. Even when limited to three members, they imbue their eighth outing with the depth and fervour on which they've built their reputation. This might not be the most urgent Sigur Rós album, but it'll surely be remembered as one of their most gorgeous. For a band so well known for all things beautiful, beauty for its own sake is hardly a problem.

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