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Sigur Ros

After the release of their second album (which coincided with an opening slot on Radiohead's Kid A tour), Icelandic art-rock ensemble Sigur Rós promptly became one of the most critically hyped bands in recent memory, garnering such ebullient characterizations as "the first vital band of the 21st century" and "music at its most basic, and most advanced." Then, naturally, there was the inevitable (though considerably smaller) backlash, which earned the band such vitriolic assessments of their music as this one, from the venerable Aquarius Records: "heavy-handed soundtracks to excessively melodramatic movies that patronize the audience with self-aggrandizing pseudo-philosophies and sub-Cocteau Twins vocalizing."

Well, let's examine that last statement, shall we? Indeed, Sigur Rós offers a decidedly "sountracky" sound, as do so many bands loosely associated with the dreaded term "post-rock." It's hard to imagine what sort of movie their music would be the soundtrack to, but it would definitely be something "melodramatic," full of bombast and operatic fury. "Self-aggrandizing pseudo-philosophies"? Well, Sigur Rós has claimed that they will change music and the way people think about music forever -- in short, they've done no less than anoint themselves the new saviors of rock and roll. How about the "sub-Cocteau Twins vocalizing"? In fact singer Jón Thór Birgisson's damaged angelic moaned gibberish is reportedly a hybrid of Icelandic and his own made-up "Hopelandish" tongue.

Well, the facts are in and it seems that Sigur Rós's detractors are right on every count -- it's all true! And yet, this music is somehow so...wonderful. These complex and intelligent musicians find a way to build layer upon layer of sound -- heavy strings, unidentifiable electronics, horns, flutes, room tones, feedback, piano, bowed guitars, regular guitars, ambient natural sounds, Birgisson's wailing, swooping, kite-like nonsense voice -- in a way that feels majestic and soaring, like a cathedral, but without the weight of a terrene structure. And, just as important, they know how to strip away those layers to just a single element or two, creating surprisingly quiet, poignant moments amongst all the celestial symphonics. These epic compositions truly feel like, silly as this sounds, castles made of clouds.

Yes, Sigur Rós is an incredibly pretentious band. But hell, The Beatles were an incredibly pretentious band. So was Led Zeppelin. Same goes for such past and present greats as The Kinks, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Radiohead, and so many others. So what? Thank God there are bands out there willing to run the risk of being perceived as pretentious. If not for the Sigur Róses of the world, all music would be an exercise in excruciating dullness.