it's been over two years since iceland's sigur rós' agaetis byrjun album surfaced, and it's tough to move on to the topic of the icelandic band's new album, ( ), without first tossing yet another fistful of accolades at that mightily lauded release. agaetis byrjun was immediate, haunting, glacial, breathtakingly beautiful, magnificent, odd and set a standard by which sigur rós' future material would have to be judged. what could possibly come next was anybody's guess, although being the underground rock set's answer to enya -- as a few naysayers derisively sniffed in agaetis byrjun's wake -- could hardly have appealed to them.
with ( ) -- recorded in early 2001 just as agaetis byrjun caught on with a wider audience -- sigur rós have dealt with the issue of how to follow up their landmark disc in a manner that is both curious and, in their case, quite natural: they haven't attempted to follow it up at all.
from its hollowed-out title on down, ( ) is a far weirder effort than its predecessor. that's hammed up somewhat by the fact that none of the tracks have titles and the cd package is accompanied by a booklet of empty pages for listeners to fill in. but where before the songs leaned toward convention -- at least in the sense that they had a beginning, middle and an end -- this batch chucks such trappings out the porthole. instead, each of ( )'s eight songs sustains one idea: say, a repeated piano sequence or spooky, bowed guitar drone, for anywhere between six and 12 minutes. those elements form the beginning, middle and end of the album itself, and ultimately work as a single 71-minute piece divided by a 30-second passage of silence at the halfway mark. the album peaks with a two-song centrepiece that is instantly recognizable from sigur rós' two toronto shows last year: the ascending piano movement of track three and its equally gorgeous companion, the album's lone, angular guitar anthem on track four.
there's also the much-bandied fact that frontman jonsi birgisson dispensed with discernible language, either icelandic or english, in favour of a made-up tongue called hopelandic. that amounts to birgisson repeating a single incantation, what sounds like variations on "ils-eye-yoh." like the music, it creates a stripped-down and striking emotional effect that holds an implied meaning in place of an explicit one.
while more harrowing and heavy-hearted than it needs to be in places, and a bit lumbering in others, ( ) is still a best-case scenario sequel for sigur rós. if it doesn't jump into your lap the way the group once did, it does have a way of creeping up on you.