A certain self-consciousness attaches itself to the act of watching Sigur Ros play live, an awareness that the Icelandic trio are these days the acme of expansive soundtracks to moments of high drama and natural wonder in film and television. Initially the feeling is that if you’re not seeing explosive time lapse photography of flowers springing into life and galaxies being born when you close your eyes, then you’re not quite getting your money’s worth.
This sensation is most pronounced, as might be expected, midway through the set during Hoppipolla, from their 2005 album Takk… Its majestic opening notes will be instantly familiar to anyone who ever saw the Planet Earth television documentary, and even to those familiar with the original it might come as a disconnecting surprise when singer Jonsi Birgisson’s heavenly falsetto vocal floats in, rather than the smooth murmur of Sir David Attenborough.
The rest of their near two hour set is reassuring similar and refreshingly different. The essence of what they do rarely changes from song to song, with each track – many of which bleed into one another or jump from one to the next with the merest of uncommented-upon gaps – building into an immersive whole characterised by an intently reverberating wall of orchestration and by Birgisson’s voice. The words he’s singing are subsumed by the volume of the music, his stretched-to-snapping-point vowels and the pidgin Icelandic vocabulary he uses. His voice is just another instrument, if the most prominent among many.
Arranged along the front of the stage are fellow full-time members Goggi Holm, flitting between bass guitar and a bank of percussive instruments, and drummer Orri Pall Dyrason, whose long blonde hair and black vest give him the appearance of a 1980s heavy metal musician. Half-visible amidst the trees of candlebulbs, strobing banks of coloured lights and a pin sharp visual montage hanging large on the screen behind them, are seven other musicians, including separate trios of string and brass players.
Yet the most distinctive aural element is Birgisson’s evocative method of playing his electric guitar with a cello bow, which adds not just sonic immediacy but a certain unforgettable visual aspect, as during Saeglopur when he bows frantically, tasselled jacket sleeve billowing in the footlit haze while a sine wave of water meniscus laps across the screen behind him. Behind this core style, the set was filled with a variety of flourishes and unique identifiers, from the feminine voice of a child choir which emerged as Varuo settled into stillness, to the charging, almost clubby drum of Rafstraumur and the clattering, dark guitar grind of Kveikur, the title track of this year’s seventh album.
Birgisson’s unnaturally sustained and undoubtedly impressive top note as Festival passed from light hymnal to dense fog of noise was the only point which might have been termed show-offy, a counterpoint to the perfectly-weighted control of their own style displayed during an encore of Svefn-g-englar and Popplagio. It was everything we might have expected from Sigur Ros, which meant it felt like very little else.