ágtis byrjun (good start), sigur rós's 1999 breakthrough album -- and, considering the very limited release of the group's debut, 1997's von (hope), pretty much the world's introduction to the icelandic quartet's unique sound -- made up for an overall lack of cohesion with a startling array of independent art rock structures. the celestial majesty of track 3 ("starlfur") was wildly different from the sense of listless drift created by the spare, opening piano bars on track 7 ("viõrar vel til loftrsa"), just as the comparatively quiet title track differed from the funeral pyre of a closer, "avalon." the one element that tied the album together, however, was the ethereal alienness of the lead vocals, a quavering, gender-neutral singing style courtesy of guitarist jón Øór birgisson. though the lyrics were performed in icelandic, birgisson sang one song, "olsen olsen," in a made-up, nonsense language dubbed hopelandic.
( ), the band's new untitled album, is by contrast sung entirely in hopelandic. one primary phrase, actually, repeated and reprocessed over different sonic arrangements across the album. structurally, ( ) is comprised of two four-song sets, the first light, the second heavy, separated by thirty-odd seconds of silence. if one wants to commit the mental energy, it's easy to imagine the opening parentheses, followed by an open space, and then a closing parentheses that comprise the title as an iconographic symbol for the harmonically balanced nature of ( ). indeed, where ágtis byrjun revealed a band trying out different musical styles, from the jazzy, string-laden track 6 ("hjartaˇ hamast (bamm bamm bamm))" to the glacially epic second cut, "svefn-g-englar," ( ) reveals a band that has settled quite comfortably into its own skin.
that ( ) was recorded at álafoss, a converted swimming pool studio just outside of reykjavik, adds an appealing, cavernous depth to the traditional guitar, drums, bass and piano instruments used by the band, offering a spacious, yet uniform tonality. there's also a loose confidence present, the sound of a band that's tasted success and isn't trying so hard to impress with the breadth of its musical knowledge. ( ) has an appealingly ragged quality to it, especially on the second set of songs, where sigur rós rocks harder than it's ever done.
the "light" half features piano and very little rhythm, conveying a reflective, somewhat melancholic mood that culminates with a mini-climax of sorts on the stirring track 4. the second side bears a greater sense of gravity, far more tactile than anything else the group has yet attempted. this might be a turn off for those into the whole "art angels" aspect of the band, or, as one overblown review referred to the group's music: "the sound of god weeping tears of gold in heaven," but the added emotion, the insertion of a more clearly definable human element -- and, crucially, pounding drums and a more muscular bass -- proves to be the true revelation of ( ). yes, other groups have trodden such prog-rock ground before (pink floyd's meddle and the soft machine's third come to mind), but sigur rós isn't so much reinventing the prog-rock wheel as retrofitting it for a whole new generation of listeners.
packaging-wise, it's impossible to ignore the decision by the band not to officially title any of the songs -- inviting others to do that for themselves, and including a blank liner notes booklet for fans to come up with their own lyrics, as well. that all of the songs had working titles to begin with (see track listings below) indicates an attempt by the group to depersonalize its members' individual experiences from the music, allowing listeners, one presumes, to impose their own identity on the cuts.
ultimately, whether the songs are titled or untitled, the key emphasis is, and should be, the music. ( ) lacks the overall variety of ágtis byrjun and, intentional or not, is excessively repetitive thanks to that same vocal reoccurring throughout. but there is unquestionable power in the sound these four icelanders are creating, handily transcending whatever limitations one might wish to harp on. the space between ( ) is anything but silent.