There’s something different about Harpa today. The usually pristine halls of Reykjavík’s glittering music palace are abuzz with activity. Downstairs, an armchair has been pushed up against the wall, surrounded by empty soda cans and video games, like a post-Christmas living room transplanted into the slate-grey space. A meeting room has become a studio-cum-gallery full of globular pink sculptures, with the artist creating prints before a smattering of intrigued onlookers. By the glittering geometric windows that look out towards Mount Esja, there’s an installation of tape loops and gramophones issuing a warm drone that hangs in the air like sonic fog; next to that, a gaggle of people sit still and silent wearing VR headsets, transported to another world entirely.
Sigur Rós promised to transform the hangar-like environment of Harpa into something more welcoming for their inaugural Norður og Niður festival, and wandering around this curious wonderland, it seems they weren’t kidding. The vibrant opening ceremony uses every part of the space—a brass band occupies the stairway of the lobby, playing a process improvisation in which sounds are triggered by passers-by, and on the mezzanine there are short orchestral, choral, rock ’n’ roll, punk-techno and poetry presentations, all introduced without fuss by the shambling, white-haired figure of local art scene figurehead Goddur. The overall atmosphere is one of a sparky, surprising, mischievous art circus that’s taken over every inch of the concert hall complex.
Walls of flame
After this curious and immersive introduction, it’s the turn of Sigur Rós to take the stage in the cavernous, arterial red Eldborg hall. Last time they played in Iceland was in 2012, with a sprawling ensemble of brass players, strings and accompanists. Today, they appear in the lean trio formation that toured the world extensively throughout 2017, appearing in front of, and sometimes within, a large black mesh cage through which bedazzling projections flicker—billowing white clouds, cellular patterns, washes of abstract colour, walls of water and flame, and vast, sparkling nebulas.
If the visuals are grand in scope, it’s with good reason. It’s easy to take Sigur Rós for granted; they have, after all, been active for over 20 years, issuing a relatively steady stream of music that hovers somewhere between climactic, emotional, experimental indie-rock and inspirational, sentimental ambient balladry, coining a distinctive genre of their own in that time. Tonight, the opening trilogy of “Á”, “Ekki Mukk” and “Glósóli” serves as a powerful reminder of exactly why they’re quite such a renowned and beloved force. When Jónsi coos quietly into the mic, it’s like he’s serenading you personally; when the chugging bass, resounding drums and bowed guitar combine into a crescendo with his rising falsetto, it’s a sound that’s enough to set your skin ablaze with goosebumps.
Joyous and resounding
Any lazy cynicism falls away quickly as the band perform a generous two-hour set that spans their back catalogue, with a particular focus on material from ‘()’ and ‘Takk.’ The moving “Vaka” and muscular “Kveikur” are highlights, and as they finish with a joyous and climactic version of “Popplagið,” the audience rise to their feet as one for a lengthy ovation. As the sound dissipates, the word “Takk” appears in giant letters on the backdrop, and Sigur Rós reappear to take a bow. Amidst the whoops, whistles, and thunderous applause, it’s evident that the sentiment is absolutely mutual.
The night is rounded off in the Silfurberg hall, where UK noise-techno-electronica artist Blanck Mass whips up a storm of heavy beats, synth stabs, and bouts of distorted screaming, cleansing the palate with a fierce performance that’s just as euphoric, in a completely different way. With their selections at Norður go Niður, Sigur Rós are joining the dots between all the elements of their extended creative family, and mapping out all the influences that make up their musical universe—and it’s a pleasure to join them on the journey.
Read more about Norður og Niður here.