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keeping things artful while picking up the tempo

for a few expectant moments on june 17, the four members of sigur ros stood in a corridor of the museum of modern art, near the entrance of an olafur eliasson exhibition called “take your time.” they were about to play a concert in the museum’s lobby, where hundreds of fans crowded before a makeshift stage. the show had sold out almost instantly, prompting much complaining (and some price gouging) online.

the high demand was understandable. on the surface the show suggested a perfect alignment: sigur ros is an art-rock band from iceland with a sound both atmospheric and heroic, while mr. eliasson is a danish-icelandic artist whose work enacts an ambient grandeur. both parties are known for taking their time, often with spectacular results.

but some things have been accelerating lately in the sigur ros realm: song tempos, production schedules, promotional plans. the night before the museum concert, there had been a show at the manhattan center’s grand ballroom; two nights earlier, a performance at bonnaroo in manchester, tenn. and just before they descended the museum staircase amid a commotion of cheers, the band members exchanged anxious glances, looking more eager and excited than their ethereal reputation might suggest.

“we’ve changed our style slightly, and we are provoking ourselves a bit,” the band’s keyboardist, kjartan sveinsson, 30, said at a midtown hotel the day of the grand ballroom show. “there’s nothing wrong with the old style, but for us it’s fun to be able to try something new, and succeed.”

sigur ros’s engrossing and energetic fifth full-length album, “med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust” (“with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly”), certainly does convey a sense of something new, at least in the context of the band’s nearly 15-year career. it’s a typically majestic but uncharacteristically summery album, with jolts of percussive energy and connotations of sunlight and air. it also features, on one track, the first english lyrics by the lead singer, jon thor birgisson, who usually sings in icelandic (or occasionally hopelandic, a gibberishlike invented tongue).

released by the xl label on tuesday, “med sud” has been streaming for a couple of weeks at, to an overwhelmingly positive response. its euphoric lead single, “gobbledigook,” has met with similar enthusiasm, perhaps partly because of a digital video made in consultation with the art photographer ryan mcginley, whose work inspired it. (the gist of the video is both sylvan and sensual, involving slender, naked folks frolicking in the woods.)

“this record undoubtedly inches them closer to some kind of mainstream,” the band’s manager, john best, said in an e-mail message this week, “even though it’s more a function of the band getting a bit older, and feeling a little less angsty, than anything approaching a stab at commerciality.”

the members of sigur ros tend to speak guardedly about conscious intention in their music, but everyone agrees that “med sud” was a departure from standard practice. all of its core tracks were recorded this spring in a studio in new york (rather than iceland), over a period of 11 days (instead of 11 months or more). for a rock band as deliberate as this one, the swiftness of the recording cycle has been unnerving.

“it was almost too fast,” mr. sveinsson said. “but that was kind of exciting as well, to always feel like we were losing control.”

mr. birgisson, 32, whose ethereal yet penetrating falsetto is the most distinctive color on the sigur ros palette, described these brisker methods as healthy for the band. “we had become lazy, and our work got slow,” he said at a cafe in central park, hours before the museum show. he attributed the new urgency to flood, a british producer known for his work with nine inch nails and u2. “when we were mixing the last song, i was still singing parts on the album,” he added, incredulously.

by phone from london, flood said: “in some respects it’s a much more human record than their previous albums, because there are flaws, things that could have been done better. but that’s why it has a bit more depth, for me personally. it suggests to me that there’s a huge potential for sigur ros to go wherever they want to go.”

by phone from london, flood said: “in some respects it’s a much more human record than their previous albums, because there are flaws, things that could have been done better. but that’s why it has a bit more depth, for me personally. it suggests to me that there’s a huge potential for sigur ros to go wherever they want to go.”

all of those factors were inspired by the band’s recent experience. two summers ago sigur ros concluded a world tour by returning to iceland for a series of free, unannounced concerts in unusual settings: hilltops and highlands, a classroom, a cannery. this somewhat quixotic endeavor was captured in “heima,” a captivating documentary released on dvd last year; it also led to the simultaneous release of “hvarf/heim,” a double ep of strictly acoustic performances.

mr. birgisson noted that the experience of playing acoustically had especially inspired the band. “after that, we wrote songs a little bit differently,” he said. “we went to the countryside for one week and rented an old farmhouse, and stayed there and wrote some songs. and we only brought acoustic instruments.”

“gobbledigook” came about after the increasingly stir-crazy band members watched the eurovision song contest, a live television event in which ardent nationalism meets saccharine pop production. (or, in the words of mr. sveinsson, “a collection of the worst music in europe, all in one evening.”) picking up their instruments right after the broadcast, they created their new lead single in a daze.

“i don’t know why it turned out like that,” mr. birgisson said. “it’s definitely a different energy, a little bit overjoyous or something.”

it’s tempting to think new york also had some influence on the outcome of “med sud” — all that manic energy seems congruent with midtown manhattan — but the idea doesn’t go far with the band. (the inside of a recording studio could be anywhere, they say, and the songs were conceived in iceland anyway, with additional studio time logged in london and havana.) nevertheless, last week signaled a return of sorts, as well as a fresh start with the tour, which had encountered some early snags: visa problems, a rare cancellation, a crushing migraine suffered by orri pall dyrason, the band’s drummer.

at the grand ballroom last monday, the capacity crowd sat in rapture during the quiet moments, including a gaping silence halfway through “vidrar vel til loftarasa,” an older song. the band’s core members — georg holm is the bassist — performed alongside the string quartet amiina and a brass coterie whose members made their entrance by marching through the aisles. at times the music was both delicate and resonant.

much of the show was searingly intense, with mr. dyrason flailing at his cymbals and mr. birgisson sawing a bow across the strings of his electric guitar. some songs were studies in the art of crescendo; others were simply explosive. and three songs from the new album, including the title track and “gobbledigook,” packed an unequivocal punch. the show was such a smash that fans immediately began speculating that the museum show would be a letdown. (musically speaking at least, they were right; the comparison was made easy by a nearly identical set list.)

the shows are over, but anticipation around the group continues: sigur ros is scheduled to play new york again in september. and the band itself will be charging ahead, having absorbed some recent lessons about the merits of quickness.

“i’m really happy that we did steer a bit off the path,” mr. sveinsson said. “because it’s so easy for a band in our situation just to do the same old thing again and again. it’s a very good time for us to take a sidestep and keep it going.”

nate chinen for the new york times, june 2008

backstage photos and audio clips on



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