It's got to be hard to open for Icelandic post-rock outfit Sigur Rós. But Brooklyn-based Julianna Barwick (who gave up her own headlining tour for the chance to support Sigur Rós) put in a nice effort. Her set was a mix of dreamy and droney, fashioned from live looping vocals and keys, all set to a video of a woman in a white crocheted dress either floating or drowning. So, pretty but also kind of unnerving.
Barwick performed with an accompanist on guitar, but that duo was effectively obscured by the Sigur Rós touring band. Though the core of that group recently shrunk to three musicians (front man Jónsi Birgisson on vocals and bowed guitar, bassist Georg Hólm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason), the stage show involved a dozen performers, including an auxiliary percussionist, vibraphone player, strings section and horn section.
The show opened with the delicate, slow-build of "Yfirborð," Jónsi's vocal in its sweetest sleepy little boy iteration as the band eased up to full speed. They quickly hit their stride with the Mad Maxian-meets-Arthurian "Brennisteinn." There, amid the auditory vastness and grinding intensity, crisp snare drums shared space with the muddy rumble of bass. Lights on the stage floor flashed every first and third beat, scarring the retinas with its insistent pulse.
While the light show was incredible — a spectacle in and of itself as well as an enhancement to the music — there were times that it seemed in opposition to the galloping folkloric-ness and organic essence of the music. Then again, there's something to the exploration of nature versus machine. Remember laser light shows shot against the walls of gorges and canyons? Saturday night was probably the closest the U.S. Cellular center has ever come to feeling like a conceptual wilderness.
The lights were, for this reviewer, best-matched to the emotional impact of the music on songs like "Vaka," already sublime with Jónsi's ethereal falsetto and tugging-at-heartstrings chords. At the apex, a dozen treelike structures on stage lit up like a glowing forest. Not meteoric, but decidedly poignant.
With the release of new album, Kveikur, Sigur Rós took a turn toward heavier music. That sonic muscle could be heard especially at the crescendo of "Glósóli" and, after the delicate intro of "Sæglópur," the crushing explosion of that song. But it was on "Hrafntinna," though not the band's loudest offering, that they showcased an acute fervor burning into the heart of the song. It's the percussion (especially a rack of metal disks that resonate like a rhythmic wind chimes set made from silverware) and the horns that give the song its otherworldly effect, both stripped down and resonant.
"Varúð" brought one of the evening's most haunting and, ultimately, most transformative moments. That song is so chillingly pure and twilit. Its video is a work of art, proving the power of quiet and delayed gratification. In concert, the band built off the video's slow-reveal. A companion visual, projected above the stage, replayed the lonely figures in the rocky landscape, holding their glimmering lights up to the sky. When those lights took flight, in time to the soaring arrangement, the stage lights, too, glowed like fireflies. As the music swelled in surges of trombone and brawny drumming, Jónsi was nearly doubled over his bowed guitar. And then everything fell away but the faintest tremor of strings and a vocal chorus that ended in a dissonant harmony.
Jónsi only spoke to the audience (a difficult-to-typify range of ages and styles) once, saying, "Hello, thank you for coming to see us." But the lack of banter didn't seem out of place. Much talk might have broken the spell, and the 100-minute set was breathlessly magical from its celebratory marches (the bright, symphonic "Hoppípolla") to its aerials (the propulsive-yet-gossamer "Með Blóðnasir"). Even apocalyptic rocker "Kveikur," with its blazing red and white lights, sparkled in its crushing, metallic ferocity.
The grand finale, a denouement of the full band and visuals, catapulted and leaped through the epic "Popplagið" (aka "Untitled 8") from 2002's ( ). It's a song that starts slow, curled into its heart-beat drum, layered strings and longing-infused vocals. It weaves a complete dreamscape, a world-between-worlds, made ever more twilit and mist-obscured by the the use of made-up language, Hopelandic (yes, you can tell it apart from Icelandic). Even as the song picked up its pace and intensity, Jónsi's vocal — a meditative chant, really — retained its speed, seeming to stretch out, untethered, unending, into the atmosphere… until the final moments of total demolition / star wars / airplane lift-off, all culminating in a tidal wave of bass feedback that washed over the audience, again and again, long after the band had left the stage.
10. Með Blóðnasir