Without some context, the scribbles in my reporter’s notebook would read like they were made by someone on an acid trip:
“Floating, tetrahedral animals…fuck yeah!”
“Band appears like a hologram, immersed in surrounding light.”
“Jónsi has such a unique voice...Now there’s a spaceship beaming light down on him, like he’s being fed by its energy beams.”
I was not tripping, though. Rather, I made these observations during Sigur Rós’s September 27 performance at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, in which the Icelandic band treated the audience to a two-set (with a brief intermission) journey through its entire music catalogue. This included plenty of tracks from the early albums Ágætis byrjun and ( ), like “Starálfur” and “Samskeyti.”
Predictably, the veteran post-rockers were amazing, producing a massive sound that oscillated between moments of poignancy and heaviness, dipping and soaring and generally melting faces with its raw, emotive power. This was even with Sigur Rós performing as a bare-bones trio, unlike other tours where they’ve crowded the stage with up to ten backing musicians. It also helps that Jónsi Birgisson, the lead singer and guitarist, has such a pure falsetto, so effortlessly cutting through the high frequencies of the music, that you end up falling under its spell, forgetting that he’s singing the whole time in a different language (some of it in the band’s made-up language, dubbed “hopelandic” by fans).
But aside from the music, my attention, and my notes, kept being drawn toward the extraordinary visual elements on stage. Now, I realize that it’s a somewhat futile exercise to describe a light show in a written piece, but the band did a few things visually that I’d never seen before and that I believe reflect a level of innovation that’s indicative of what shows of the future can and will look like.
The main innovation I want to highlight was how Sigur Rós utilized the whole depth of the stage; indeed, when the bandmembers opened their second set, they had abandoned their instruments and microphones at the front of the stage and were instead a good twenty to thirty feet removed from the pit. (I believe this is also a reason why they are performing this tour as a trio – less clutter on stage with fewer musicians.)
With the extra space, the band surrounded itself with LED panels that could be raised and lowered like wall partitions, configured at different angles in relation to the audience so that they were three-dimensional. When coupled with projections behind the band, the interspersed LED panels allowed visual engineers to trace 3-D shapes out of what appeared to be midair. Indeed, the LED screens relied on some gestalt psychology, being translucent enough to see through when their tiny and individual LEDs were not lit up, but able to trick the brain, appearing as solid blocks of light whenever the whole panel fired up at once. Sigur Rós took full advantage of this in interesting ways. For example, I’d never seen a band perform behind an LED screen until Tuesday’s performance, which is probably why I also had the tripped-out sensation at times that they looked like holograms.
All of this must have been incredibly expensive to put on, and so it makes sense that the band decided to move the show from its originally announced venue (the Paramount) to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. On its website, Sigur Rós had written:
“This move is not what we intended but, wanting to treat our fans in Denver to the full Sigur Rós live experience, the venue change became essential.“
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It was a good call, though. With such an intricate array of visual elements, the band wanted the full effect, which included flashes and projections all timed with the beats and thrusts of the music.
Keeping in synch did rely on precise timing from the band, which at times was flawed, as when drummer Orri Páll Dýrason occasionally got half a beat off from the music (but he always corrected immediately, and it was barely perceptible).
I’m not always a fan of backing tracks – pre-recorded elements that the musicians play along to, usually by following a click track that they listen to through their earpieces – because it allows for less fluidity and spontaneity in the music. But given the way that the Icelandic group’s light show corresponded to its songs, its decision to play along to backing tracks was worth it, even if it led to a few minor mistakes, timing-wise.
Other large touring acts should take notice of what Sigur Rós and its visual engineers have created on this tour. For me, the innovative use of space and depth was a reminder of why we bother to go to concerts: not just for the music, but for the spectacle.