Sigur Ros - ()

I grew up in Westerville, Ohio, a Columbus suburb with such a profound historical aversion to alcohol that the Anti-Saloon League decided to set up its headquarters there during prohibition. That legacy stuck; decades after the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, Westerville remained dry. Thus, the closest thing to nightlife was a monthly event called Midnight Madness in which businesses in the quaint Uptown district stayed open late. I was homesick during my first quarter down the road at Ohio University, and some friends were back in town from their respective colleges, so we found ourselves Uptown perusing the shops one Friday night. The only storefront of interest to 19-year-old me was Sour Records, a brick-and-mortar shop run by a tall, large-nosed man named Steve. Judging from the number of empty wine bottles on the counter that night, Steve and his buddies had been flouting our city’s heritage of sobriety. I was hoping he would have the new Sigur Rós album in stock even though it wasn’t coming out until the following week, and sure enough, there it was on the shelf behind the register, its jewel case wrapped in a white plastic cover with two parentheses carved out. File-sharing was a widespread phenomenon by then, but leaks weren’t the pervasive force they are now. Getting ahold of an album before the release date was something special, especially one as anticipated as this. So I got up the courage to ask Steve about it, and — after subjecting me to a wine-addled lecture that involved pulling out every Bob Dylan CD from his racks, describing them all at length and forcing me to purchase one — he let me buy the Sigur Rós too.

I was ecstatic. Upon the release of ( ) in 2002, Sigur Rós was a bigger deal than ever before or since. Their next three albums all charted higher, but none felt more like an event. The previous three years had seen the group develop, on the strength of masterstroke sophomore release Ágætis byrjun, from an anonymous foreign band into a beloved treasure among the rapidly expanding initiated. They emerged fully formed, combining post-rock’s grandiosity, Bjork’s mysterious Icelandic quirkiness and a lead singer whose celestial whale call bore more than a passing resemblance to Thom Yorke. Jonsi Birgisson’s falsetto struck such an alluring balance between achingly human and startlingly alien that it didn’t matter whether I could understand a single word from his mouth. (In fact, after perusing the translated lyrics from Ágætis byrjun, not knowing was definitely better.) He was probably airing out some particular internal turmoil, but Sigur Rós was not about communicating coherent thoughts so much as conjuring extravagant swells of universal emotion. In doing so, they also conjured quite an audience, all of whom were awaiting Oct. 28 with fevered anticipation.

What did Sigur Rós do with this opportunity? They delivered their bleakest, most grueling collection, a cold and dreary 72-minute sprawl that’s both deeply confounding and deeply moving. “The Bracket Album,” as the band members call it, is the best ammunition for anyone looking to accuse Sigur Rós of being moody and pretentious. There’s the symmetrical conceit: eight untitled tracks divided into two vaguely opposite swaths of emotion, separated by 36 seconds of silence, summed up with a Google-proof pair of parentheses. (The record even begins and ends with the plugging and unplugging of an amplifier cord.) Then there’s Hopelandic, the made-up language Birgisson used for all the lyrics, seemingly embracing the fact that for much of his audience he might as well be singing gibberish anyway. He mostly seemed to be saying “You sigh low” a lot. (“You silo?”) And lest anyone crack a smile while listening, there would be none of the elven festivities of the prior album’s “Olsen Olsen,” nor the prancing-naked-across-the-highway joyful noise the band later perfected on 2008′s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (translation: “With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly.”) This was a bleak wilderness. Traversing it was an exercise in patience and endurance, even by Sigur Rós standards. Its pleasures couldn’t have been further from the so-called new rock revolution being spearheaded by the Strokes and the White Stripes at the time.

But there were plenty of pleasures. “Untitled #1″ laid a dramatic foundation, beginning the album’s supposedly light and optimistic first half with the sound of fleeting ecstasy, glimmers of light being swallowed by the gray. In turn, “untitled #8″ gathered tension slowly and methodically until at long last the levee broke and the band proved they could absolutely throttle you when they felt like it. Somewhere between was arguably the band’s artistic peak, “untitled #4,” a song so heartrendingly majestic that Cameron Crowe sprung for a live recording of it to score the final scene of Vanilla Sky because the studio version wasn’t available yet. The rest of the record — mostly elongated textural soundscapes that surged forward with all the urgency of glaciers — wasn’t nearly as compelling on first listen, and some of it still feels like a drag. Acquiring it four days early wasn’t much of a head start in the race to comprehend it; nor did live performance fully unlock it. Seeing Sigur Rós in concert during that period from a comfortably padded theater chair, I alternated between battling to stay awake and experiencing such a rush that I must surely have been dreaming. Like most music designed to get lost in, its mystique seemed to come and go with your trances.

It’s remarkable that Sigur Rós didn’t seem to shed any fans with this album. ( ) is not exactly Metal Machine Music, but it takes a committed listener to follow through to the finish, especially once you hit the desolate second half. (It ends with a 13-minute song followed by an 11-minute song, and those are the catchy ones.) Most people don’t relish the chance to have their patience tested; few want to carve out the time to fully immerse themselves in an experience even if the benefits are readily apparent. Revisiting the record Sunday on its 10th birthday, it wasn’t any less obfuscating, but its mesmerizing power remained as well. The elation that comes with the highs demands closer examination of the lows, even if you have to squint sometimes to find the magic. ( ) is not the album the faithful were hoping for, nor is it a higher wisdom left turn along the lines of Kid A. It is a brooding and finicky diva, as stubborn as it is unimaginably gorgeous.

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Comments (43)
  1. jesus, Im getting old. Stereogum solely exists to remind everyone they’re getting older. Its a website dedicated to marking the passing of time & making lists regarding that time.

    • … just realized that rolling stone does the same thing – for SUPER old people.

      slippery slope my friends. my back hurts.

    • It could be because that nothing new has enough broad-based appeal, even within the niche of indie rock, to generate page clicks anymore. As a result we are seeing more and more ‘…Turns 10′, ‘…Turns 20′, ‘…Turns 25′ or ‘…’s 10 Best Songs’ on this site. It is the only language we all still speak.

  2. The best S.R. album, no doubt about it.

  3. I spent a whole summer cooped up in my Grandmother’s sitting room listening to this – and only 6 other CD’s because my case couldn’t carry more – during a hurricane, so not only is this one of my favorite albums, it’s tied to a crazy experience forever. Making it doubly memorable.

  4. The video for Untitled #1 was one of the best uses of children in a video I’ve ever seen.

  5. I remember when I first heard about this album… “there’s this weird Icelandic band and they made an album where every song is untitled and they sing in their own made up language that’s a combination of like 6 real languages”. Needless to say it was intriguing stuff.

    Even though I really love Ágætis Byrjun and Takk (and to a lesser extent the really long-titled one), ( ) is always tops for me. It’s just a massive massive album, a world you could walk around in and get rained on and fall in love.

    Truly one of my favorites albums ever.

  6. I’d wager that “Untitled #8″ is their greatest musical accomplishment. Such a massive track.

    And on that note, I’ll see you guys at November 9th’s Shut Up, Dude. Off to Iceland Airwaves to go see Sigur Ros & Shabazz Palaces.

    Hurricanes do not stop rjc.

  7. Anyone else make up their own titles (and back stories) for each of the songs on the record?
    I could never really get behind the whole ‘Untitled #_’ aesthetic.

  8. Probably still a top 20 album for me. Lots of dorm room time spent with this one. I remember reading others’ reviews about it on CDNow. Most of them came hilariously short to describing anything at all, but everyone was very clear that this was epic. It still is.

  9. Great writeup that does justice to a great album. It’s not always easy to carve out the time or the headspace to engage () in full, but like most things that require an effort to engage, it’s well worth it.

  10. You had to buy a dylan album to get it… that’s how a recordsalesman should be :-)

    That album definitely made me feel cool about not sharing most of my friends’ music taste! but nowadays I really have to be in the mood for that much grandiosity! I still think it’s a fantastic record, but it’s a huge bite to swallow!

  11. What a fantastic album. Very well written writeup, too.

  12. You sat alone THE FIRE

  13. Sigur Ros albums (Scandinavian characters, spelling and/or shorthand be damned):

    1. ()
    2. Agaetis Byrjun
    3. Von
    4. The New one
    5. Takk…
    6. The one with the naked people from 2008

  14. I hope I’m not ruining anyones vision of the album and the tracks, since Sigur Rós wanted people to make their own stories and thoughts about the tracks as they listened to them, and write them in the empty pages of the booklet) but here are the titles they made themselves for the tracks from the album:

    1. Vaka (the name of Orri’s new born (at the time) daughter)
    2. Fyrsta (means ”the first”, maybe the first song they wrote for the album?)
    3. Samskeyti (means ”joint” or ”seam”. Maybe for the connection between two songs or summin?)
    4. Njósnavélin (the spy machine)
    5. Álafoss (the place where their former recording studio ‘sundlaugin’ (the swimming pool) is)
    6. E-bow (…)
    7. Dauðalagið (the death song)
    8. Popplagið (the pop song)

    And the name of the album in icelandic (and the translation of ”the bracket album) is ”Svigaplatan”

    Maybe most of you already know these titles, I just thought somebody had to post them here :)
    They always use these titles on their set-lists.

    This album is definitely their coldest and darkest album (I always group their albums in the seasons, so this is obviously the winter album :)) but they hate it when people try to define their albums. For an example an icelandic music journalist published an article in the biggest newspaper in iceland, Morgunblaðið, about their career, with a huge linear graph showing their high and low points, and this album was their lowest point in their career, according to the graph. The band was furious about this and their answer was published some days later.

    I hope they’re playing some tracks of this album on the current tour, I was fucking stoked when they played E-bow on the Með suð í eyrum.. tour. It fit perfectly in that set. However I think they’ve definitely overplayed Untitled #8 – Popplagið. I was specially sick of it when they played an otherwise fucking awesome set at the outdoors Nature concert held on a field in Reykjavík in Iceland. It was one of the first time they played the songs of Með suð í eyrum.. and they were all so happy and uplifting songs, something nobody expected (Björk even joined the on stage for Gobledigook), and it was just a short set (8 songs or something), but then they ended with popplagið which was a huge bonerkill (yes, I said bonerkill).
    I’m really excited for their concert next sunday here in iceland at Iceland Airwaves. Really excited to see if Kjartan (the keyboard player) is going to show up and which songs they are going to play, since the new album doesn’t really fit with the ”best of” songs.

    Oh and Chris, pleeease don’t write ‘Hopelandic’. Haha no offense, but I thought that this site would be one of the few that knew better than doing that :D
    Hopelandic is a name some journalists made up to simplify this concept of them singing just what fits to the music. It’s not a compilation of many languages or anything, but sometime I can hear bits of icelandic words here and there. But Björk has also done this a lot in the past but nobody calls that hopelandic. You can very often here her singing bits of icelandic words in those moments.

    Otherwise very good article ! I’m always happy seeing how much respect they have outside of iceland. They’re not really that popular here in iceland, their concert next sunday isn’t even sold out, but that’s probably because everyone thinks they have to have an iceland airwaves pass to get in (which they don’t, it just gives you a discount).

    • Sigur Rós refers to “Hopelandic” on their official website FAQ, stating: “on von, ágætis byrjun and takk, jónsi sang most songs in icelandic but a few of the songs were sung in ‘hopelandic’. all of the vocals ( ) are however in hopelandic. hopelandic (vonlenska in icelandic) is the ‘invented language’ in which jónsi sings before lyrics are written to the vocals. it’s of course not an actual language by definition (no vocabulary, grammar, etc.), it’s rather a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument.”

      Furthermore, Jónsi states in an interview with Sánd in 2002 that the band made up the name “Hopelandic.”

      “Q: Jónsi, do you sing in Hopelandic?

      A: This is a funny journalist obsession, which the biggest fans have gotten dragged into, too. On our first album Von [Hope], I just babbled the vocals to the title song spontaneously. We had lots of fun with it and called it Hopelandic. Maybe it’s a language, who knows. I think each and every person can interpret it in their own way. This Hopelandic thing is kind of funny, maybe Icelanders will adopt it one day.”

      • haha ok I knew it was stated on the 18 seconds… website (which hasn’t always been the official website), and I haven’t read every single interview, but they answer the question about hopelandic veery often with the answer: this was something journalists made up. And I know they think the whole defenition of this ”language” and that the use of the hopelandic name is very silly. And I know that they don’t start band practice saying ok guys let’s sing in hopelandic because that’s our thing.

        Sigur Rós have talked to much about this so I thought Stereogum would be in on this and would not use the word. But I’m just a fanboy, I probably sound like a douchebag, and this is probably all very inappropriate, downvote as you like.

        • No downvotes, I thought your response was thoughtful. I just didn’t think the author/Stereogum should be slighted for seemingly accurate reporting. I get the hang-up on the semantics of the word “language” when it’s essentially scat singing, but it seems disingenuous for the band (or fans) to decry the press when they’re the ones who put “Hopelandic” in the press release for ( ).

  15. Oh man, this was 2002 also? What a year for music. Kids today, they really missed out on being cool.

  16. And for what it’s worth, I always heard it as “You sat along the fire, you sigh low”

  17. “Untitled 3″ is like one of my all time favourite tracks. The fan made video of it on YouTube fits it perfectly.

  18. (untitled comment)

  19. This album was great but it doesn’t hold a candle to “{ }”. It’s far better than “[ ]“, though. I kind of wish it had a bit more of that grit that “” brought.

  20. Some of my friends would refer to this record as “The Sausage Album” and some would call it “The Toilet Seat Album.” I guess the important thing is that they were listening and talking about it because it’s a tremendous album.

  21. These anniversary things are fucking ridiculous! () turns ten? Big deal! It’s not a landmark album, and it’s not even Sigur Ros’ most loved or influential. Does stereogum have nothing else to write about? Why not hire some decent writers who are knowledgeable about music both in historical context and in theory? Or who have seen more than their own navels?

    You want an anniversary? Please Please Me is 50. There you go. In other news, Tomboy is a year and a half. Oh, remember the days, and the incalculable influence!

  22. Your self-titled album is much better. That was you guys, right?

  23. And it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

  24. I’m not interested in anything Sigur Ros unless there’s an alien fetus on the cover or Bjork is involved.

    I kid, I kid. I like this album, but the lack of song titles always threw me off. So I just named them after the noises I hear. Untitled One becomes Dramatic Organ. Untitled Four is Dramatic Organ Meets Alien Baby.

  25. yeah, this year they’re touring with arab strap

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