Review Summary: post-human
Sigur Ros are, or were, a post rock band. This means they have always had to deal with the genre’s criticism tropes - the idea that music is always better if it's bigger, louder, darker, more complex. Agaetis Bryjun
succeeded because it was a masterpiece, but it also did well because it fit the rock narrative of 2000. It was genuinely progressive music in an era where Kid A
scared people because it sounded too much like Aphex Twin and not enough like Blur. As Sigur Ros became less complex, smaller, and subtler over the 18 years since Agaetis
, they have lost much of their following, while post-rock as a genre has become a punchline. Meanwhile, Jonsi and friends have pretty much left their original sound behind besides their voices. Route One
is their latest project. It is fully computer-generated, with the only human touch being the original sample (a track called "Ovedur" from 2016, bringing a new meaning to the concept of lead single), along with their decision to crop the project down from twenty four hours to forty minutes. This reflects Sigur Ros's continued effort to evolve. A technique like this is virtually unheard of in music, especially from a band as popular as they are. Using auto-generative software shows an attitude of submission and acceptance of help into a genre built off of ideas of auteurs, dominance and control. This is rare and ought to be celebrated. Art is obviously political, and Sigur Ros are pushing back against both the role of the artist as creator and of the creator as the ruler of the art.
The original 24-hour piece was meant to accompany a ride all the way down the real Route One, referenced with each track title reflecting a highly specific location. Like every Sigur Ros project, this is a journey, even outside of the obvious literal explanation. But rather than a clear path filled with joys and sorrows, it is the sound of perseverance. Sounding more like a drone album than a post-rock one, it is long, stretched, and redundant. Wave after wave of sound hits over and over again, requiring patience, attention and a very specific mood to really seep into the most meaningful aural cracks. However, it's worth the effort. Despite having somewhat less of an emotional core, the work goes beyond what many would assume is just a pretentious art project. The path from hopeless to hopeful is subtle, but audible through the slow, natural tone changes. One of the greatest criticisms of post-rock is that it over-relies on music tropes (particularly the quiet-loud crescendo dynamic) to sort of force emotions, perhaps inauthentically. This cannot really apply to Route One
as its progression is entirely natural, both objectively (in that its process of creation implies a lack of human motivations, thus creating instant authenticity) and subjectively. As strings continue to slide in and out, wavelengths reduce, mirroring the slow regaining of passion and excitement after a wall of meaninglessness. It's not clear exactly what this means, and I suspect members of Sigur Ros don’t know either, but it feels as if it’s looking forward. It's not as optimistic as they have been in the past. There's no ultimate joy to the performance, no racing heartbeat, just the surging in and out of the mental tide, with a slight glance to the skies saving it and us from despair. This is perhaps a more realistic and reflective look on life, one that would more easily come from something without an agenda, and it is another stepping stone on their seemingly impossible path through music, but it is not one that’s easy to hear. Regardless, it represents something important, beautiful, and striking. Even if it cannot quite stand up to the best of the catalog of one of the most critically acclaimed bands ever, it is still a persuasive piece that is absolutely worth listening to on a lonely night. With the night comes the light, and Sigur Ros understand that better than anyone working in music today. Sometimes it’s best just to let the day go.