Feats of Strength: Sigur Rós

I remember how when I heard Sigur Rós for the first time, I was astonished that music like this could exist.  The band had constructed a startlingly beautiful and truly unique sound, creating gorgeous, ethereal soundscapes that were complemented by brilliant and memorable melodies.  There was an ethereal and unearthly quality to their songs, and it was difficult to comprehend just how the band was able to craft these songs using standard musical instruments.  This paradox is illustrated perfectly by “Svefn-G-Englar”, my introduction to the band, which sounds as if it was broadcast from under the sea, with its delicate keyboard melody accented by what seems to be the ping of a sonar, as a reverb and feedback-drenched guitar slowly begins to roar until it finally erupts.  And all that is before Jónsi’s vocals kick in–his incredible range along with the fact that he sings mainly in Icelandic helped add to the exotic nature of their music.  It was difficult to comprehend that humans actually created this music.

Over the years, I learned more about the methods the band employed to craft their singular sound, namely Jónsi’s use of a bow on his guitar for certain songs.  Seeing the band live also helped clear up some of the mystery, as sounds that bled together before could now be delineated into distinct guitar, keyboard, bass, and drum parts.  In some sense it was a bit disappointing to confirm that mere mortals were responsible for this music, much like how some of the allure is rubbed off when one finds out the secret behind the magician’s trick.  On the other hand, one can find it inspiring to realize that when it comes to music that magic in fact does not exist.

But just when it seemed that all mysteries were solved, leave it to one of the unsung heroes of the band to figure out a way to surprise listeners.  Georg Holm has been holding down the low end for the band for years with his basslines, but sometimes his contributions can get lost in the mix.  However, his unusual bassline for Hafsól, a track that has evolved from the band’s earliest days, that stands out.  The emphasis is purely on the rhythm, an unusual stuttering pattern that rarely strays from a single note.  It seems the only way to get that precise pattern would be with the use of a pick, but live footage proves otherwise.

In fact, Holm is using a drumstick to create this particular rhythm!  Considering that he is relying on a slight drum roll to create the figure, it is amazing that Holm is able to consistently recreate the same pattern over and over again.  Then again, Holm considers himself a “drummer” and that his role is really “just to try to make the drums sound better.” The use of a drumstick with a stringed instrument is not unheard of, but usually it is for creating only a pure percussive effect and not for anything melodic, with cacophony being the usual goal.  The band deserves a lot of credit for its creativity and its experimentation with tactics like this, and finding different ways to surprise their audience.

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