Cisco Houston Web Site

Sigur Ros

Iceland meets Kansas

Jim Clark

My daughter, Eanna, made a compilation CD for my birthday in 2002. She was 18. I was turning 47. Our tastes wouldn't seem to have much in common.

Surprisingly though, I enjoyed much of the content, Bjork and some one or thing called Radiohead especially interesting me. Being a relatively old codger, I was unfamiliar with these people other than as names. I did see Dancer in the Dark after all the buzz on the Wim Mertens fan list I subscribe to and my daughter's exhortations as well. Actually, she watched it with us to be sure we sat all the way through. But other than that, this was all unknown turf. I knew none of Bjork's music besides the pieces in the film, and the rest of the CD was completely new. Though I generally liked the non-rap selections, one track really haunted me.

Olsen Olsen by Sigur Ros just would not leave my head. I asked my daughter for the original CD, to investigate and explore in greater detail, but this track (and only this one, or so she assured me!) was a converted MP3. She found she had a few minutes of empty space when she was done, and the guy helping her put it together knew them and found an MP3 on the web. They thought I'd like it. Her description was it "sounded sort of 'classical'", though Medieval through Baroque is more my style. I like the dense polyphony and limited instruments of both Guillaume de Machaut and J.S. Bach, not the big orchestras of later music.

One day at lunch, a time when I usually pereuse the electronic USA Today while eating, I decided to look for some info about these guys. I knew zero. Complete ignorance. Weird name. Nothing else except that this mysterious track was gloriously contemporary while simultaneously being a bizarre anachronism.

And looking for Olsen, Olsen didn't help. They had listed the song title inaccurately. I eventually located their web site, learned they were Icelandic (I've actually been to Iceland, but wasn't brave enough to leave the airport), and while poking around, read their tour information. They are appearing in Lawrence, Kansas on Friday, November 15, the very day I was reading the web page! About 8 hours in the future, a mere 30 miles and 30 years away. Lawrence is the home of the University of Kansas and little else. In the ferociously Bible-beltish, conservative Republican enclave, it is a trip back to 1973 or so. Ostentatiously wild college kids trying hard not to be their parents, (and as their parents wear t-shirts and thong underwear, get tattooed and pierced, and listen to loud music, it is harder than ever), classic yuppie coffee shops and outdoors stores, bookstores declaring themselves not to be corporate chains, and an aura of a place that manages to make its own rules as long as someone else pays the bill. Nice place to visit but would NOT want to live there.

I called my wife and told her we were driving to Lawrence that night. I went home, picked her up, and we went to the venue. And bought the last two floor tickets available.

Our favorite restaurant in Lawrence does not serve dinner, so we wandered for a bit before selecting a place that was both expensive and disappointing. We then rushed to the theatre and joined a line of black-haired, pierced, tattooed college students dressed in black jackets, t-shirts, jeans, and shoes. There was one other couple our age, though they were also dressed in black. Man, and I almost wore a tie!

It's kind of fun to see somebody you know (almost) nothing about perform live. One of my favorite rock albums from the early 70s was called One Live Badger. Badger was a Yes descendant that recorded their first (and essentially only) album live. It was, and is, great. With no preconceptions, you get the raw, real show.

Sigur Ros was astonishing. They were like Wim Mertens on speed -- the same kind of dense, wall-of-sound, multi-instrument repetitiveness but with more abandon, more surprising sounds and weird juxtapositions, a breathtaking percussionist, and more "unusual" vocalizations. All this over a tapestry of ever-changing colors and shapes swirling in the background.

A great book from my past is E.H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion, where I learned the maxim "Making precedes matching", translatable as "the brain tries very hard to make order out of disordered visual stimuli, relating them as best it can to known and familiar objects."

This truism was working overtime that night, as my mind struggled with both a visual and audio mishmash that wanted to go "home." Just when it seemed the 'song' would degenerate into unrelieved anarchy, they would pull it together in an inventive and often startling way. This was a completely new flavor for me, and one I found immediately attractive. Though I'd been prepared by Mertens and a few others, I had heard nothing like this. Ever.

If you're thinking of seeing them, go. Or wondering if you should take a chance on that bizarrely untitled CD, give it a try. I have since purchased both CDs, and I have found them less exhilarating than the live, three-dimensional, sight-and-sound experience. But I will give them more time to work their magic.

Fate intervened. I am glad it did.

All photos from the Lawrence performance, swiped from the Sigur Ros official web site. Click on the thumbnail for a larger version.

2007 Note: I saw them again on another trip to KC, and was disappointed. It was not as good. Me? Them? Can't say, but just not as overwhelming. Nor is their later CD as good. They had something magic, and have not quite replicated it.

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