a polar blast to melt your soul
so the arctic is melting. not that i had to go to the ice cap to find this out; the new sigur ros album gave mc an inkling. we may never know whether the album helped cause the thaw, or the thaw helped cause the album. but whatever happened, musically there can be no mistake: the sun suddenly blazes from iceland.
before we all get our kit off, let me explain: my relationship with scandinavia, and more lately iceland, goes back some time. i like nordic places; they have something i'd like to have, apart from space. i suppose it's a kind of stubborn clarity. but apart from the vibe that was hijacked to sell ice-mint and pine, stubborn clarity isn't native to our culture. for we in smutty places, it can evoke a kind of starkness. and depending how far up the northern line you arc. nordic cultural products can even seem clinical or downright strange - not helped admittedly by languages that know nipples as 'breast warts'.
i say it comes from their environment. irrevocable grandeur and space has left them reluctant to complicate the simple, or limit the free. there's no need to decorate. and those qualities along with the landscape itself, arc in the blood of norse artists and musicians.
listen to scandinavian music, from the earliest nordic chants through sibelius and rautavaara to the current day. and you quickly find that many of its pieces are faithfully rendered landscapes; like helicopter tours up the fjords, low sweeps over the type of crystal terrain where a water-drop falling is a resonant musical event. sigur ros have toured the odd ice cathedral in their 14 years of life as a band, handsomely so - but with this type of music, however breathtaking, it can be hard not to feel that you're touring the vastness alone, sometimes in winter.
icelanders cry out their position with high originality. this often makes theirs a music that has its rime and place to be heard, and can be less easily shared. and after landscapes, contemporary nordic alternatives often draw more from the free than the simple; to evoke extreme drunkenness on rotten whale fat, or creature: that shriek in contact with ice.
over time, those of us interested in highly original music have come to expect these landscapes and breast warts and shrieks from the frozen north. then, like a zephyr breeze, along comes sigur ros's fifth album, med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust (with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly'). this is nordic music thawed and played next to your naked skin. timeless songs of passion and reflection; but reflection without melancholy or loneliness. some of it is still vast music, but the flavour is affecting and joyous, with certain numbers bordering lullabies for their intimacy and heat. the album is a warm journey, more than most a collection to be heard from start to finish - a travelling work that lifts you up towards track seven, an epic production called ara batur' (row boat), the biggest undertaking of the band's career. there, all at once, 90 souls, including the london sinfonietta and london oratory boys' choir, blast our spirits through sunlight to a place far above the frosty minimalism we've come to expect from the north. this track alone will lay waste the polar cap.
the album was written, performed and mixed entirely this year, produced as a series of live sessions with all the smells and squeaks left in, and finished barely a month ago. real spontaneity and virtuosity are captured in the acoustics, arrangements, and the playing order as a result. med sud i eyrum... is a beautiful collection that blows sigur ros beyond the place they come from, geographically and musically. and ryan mcginley's cover photo, of naked youths running across a country highway in summer, perfectly evokes the album's spirit.
ah, iceland: get it while it's hot.