Review Summary: Icelandic shoegazers get their hands dirty at long, long last...
Sigur Ros has always been the Porsche of comfort music – no fussy, constant section changes, no botched lyrics, no awkward sophomore indie backlash, just the right variation on uplifting or somber to fit the moment. The minute the band come up against any kind of hurdle musically, they do what they always do: bury it in huge amounts of sustain, play it out till it’s purely hypnotism and hit record with meticulous aplomb.
On their first two full lengths the overwhelming originality and peerlessness of it all was more than enough to draw you in; it probably didn’t hurt that they had written some of their best material early on ('Svefn-g-englar' still towers over the majority of their 2000s material), and there was even probably a fair bit of culture shock to be had: why is this plugged-in Icelandic folk music parading as shoegaze wandering around on my Pitchfork-friendly radio playlist here in the America-centric world of modern rock?
Its not fair to say that riding this wave of uniqueness is all that got them this far: if '( )' and 'Takk…' had played out like re-hashed versions of their predecessors, it would have been immediately obvious. Tracks like 'Untitled 8' and 'Gong' from those records proved that Sigur Ros are a band who can move at will about their sound and take it on from many disparate angles: the violent, earth-crashing-into-the-sun grandeur of the former and the opera-jazz shuffle and radioheadesque sound pastiche of the latter; but ultimately, despite album-centric quirks, everything from 'Agaetis Byrjun' through to 'Takk...' – 6 years of the bands history - could have been taken from the same sessions and redistributed across the board as seen fit under the guise of albums.
It is with great satisfaction, then, that we see Sigur Ros finally step out of their proverbial comfort zone on 'Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust', their 5th proper full-length and first album to be made outside their native Iceland. The obsessively clear and clean production has been replaced with big, roomy drums, scratchy acoustics and intimate, dry vocals; no longer is everything drenched in alien delay - each instrument sounds startlingly real in a way not dissimilar to the recordings on last years Hvarf/Heim double EP.
Really though, it’s the change in the songs that makes Med Sud what it is: the first few tunes are positively upbeat. The drums pound with percussive punk-rock energy on opener/first single 'Gobbledigook', all flowery, simplistic guitar chords and chirping ‘lalalalas’. Incessant bass stomp and pompous horn spikes rise up out of 'Vid Spidum Endalaust'; even the rather lengthy 'Festival' becomes a triumphant clatter of real, LIVE music after a few movements.
It’s an emotional honesty unparalleled by any of Sigur Ros’ previous releases: a child-like joy in the cycle of day-to-day life that parallels the bands interviews on their Heima DVD. Even Jonsi’s vocal delivery, in spite of the indecipherable Icelandic/gibberish lyrics, feels more honest and unrestrained, and reflects a kind of passing-of-burden that both the band and the devotee must feel listening to this record: Sigur Ros have dumped a large portion of their expectations, maintained their artistic outlook and individuality, and proved themselves maneuverable in a whole new way.
Ultimately, this irresistible zeitgeist doesn’t make Med Sud a greater feat than anything they’ve done so far. It does, however, make for a brilliant 5th LP that not only meets expectations, but also provides a strong sigh of relief to those afraid that Sigur Ros may soon become stale. The outlook has never been brighter for this Icelandic quartet, with whole new fields of musical delight to revel in on records to come – a kind of triumphant joy which could only be captured in its own creation.