Sigur Rós is more than a band, it is a memory palace. When the Icelandic group’s ethereal shoegaze music emerged in the U.S. in the early 2000s, it came as slow, beautiful and potentially confusing as a rolling fog. Frontman Jónsi Birgisson sings in either Icelandic or his invented, phonetic language, Hopelandic. The music doesn’t have many hooks, per se, mainly just heavenly clouds of soft, heavily reverbed sound. The ambiguity has built a fervent fan base for Sigur Rós by creating gorgeous spaces into which listeners can place their own meanings.
On Monday, Sigur Rós performed a two-act set at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. That much emotional anticipation can set a high bar for live performance. Adding to the challenge, Sigur Rós is touring without a new album and without long-time member and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, responsible for the band’s epic orchestral and string arrangements.
The evening started out slow with a new song, “Á.” The song has a throbbing, looped drum track, which Jónsi soared over with his lofty, swooping vocals. The familiar tone allowed the audience to take in the stage scaffolding: metal framing dividing the stage and a huge, wide-gauge mesh curtain backdrop. It supported the lighting and became its own visual effect by partitioning the stage and raggedly framing the psychedelic video projections.
The band really came alive during moments of punk rage. In the first set, that came in Jonsi’s signature guitar-played-with-cello-bow, him flourishing it forward at climaxes like a cane slipping out from underneath an old man.
The second set had the real gems. “Ný Batterí” from 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun has a mid-song breakdown where the delicate vocals of Jonsi collude with thrashing, distorted drums and guitar. That evening, when the moment came, it seemed to release an enormous amount of tension — an arena-sized primal scream — allowing a peek into the original magic of the group.
In the same way cheap flights have recently reduced the otherness of Iceland a bit, Sigur Rós has also become a bit more earthly. Revisiting memories from years ago can sometimes feel sheepish, like reading an old journal. Despite the cynicism of time, there are still moments when the band’s music glimpses perfect transcendence. Not too shabby for three guys playing rock ‘n’ roll.