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irish times review of 'heima'

the icemen cometh

sigur rós talk! the legendarily shy band consented to be interviewed for a new concert documentary, but the film is just as much a love letter to their home, iceland, writes brian boyd.

the sigur rós tour diary fan board gives you some idea of what the word "idolatry" means: "even back home after the gig, i felt as if this night had never ended and i had an everlasting smile on my face for days after" . . . "this was by far the most amazing show i have ever attended in my life" . . . "it is impossible to truly verbalise the feelings and sensations i experienced during the show". these are just a few samples from fans' comments, and not necessarily the most effusive ones.

sigur rós do funny things to people. they make listeners describe their music in terms of the sound that melting glaciers make; the word "celestial" is frequently invoked. they sometimes don't even bother naming their songs, so you hear people at their gigs shouting out such requests as "track seven". most times they don't even sing in their native icelandic, but in a made-up language, hopelandish. their fans embark on "pilgrimages" to see them play. they are responsible for an increase in tourism to iceland by people curious to visit the country that produced such a unique and utterly captivating sound.

to make all this a bit more concise: sigur rós are arguably the best music band in the world today. if you want it easier still: arcade fire are sigur rós for early learners.

renowned for what some would term an aloof and arty approach (but, to be fair, that would only be by comparison with clowns like babyshambles), sigur rós run from the mainstream. whenever an interviewer shoves a microphone in their faces, they are lucky to elicit even a monosyllabic answers. they have turned down millions of pounds over the years from advertising companies, and the only time they've licensed their work out was when david attenborough requested the use of hoppípolla for his planet earth tv series.

when news came through that this notoriously private band were making a film, everyone assumed it would be some wilfully abstract affair, or something very warholian such as a single camera focusing on a tree for hours. as always, though, sigur rós have confused everyone by releasing the relatively orthodox heima (icelandic for "at home"), which sees them on tour in their native country. but this is iceland and this is sigur rós, so one of the venues is the inside the of an abandoned herring oil tank.

the band insisted the film be made for free. this meant hauling 40 film crew around the length and breadth of iceland and putting on free gigs every other day.

to get around the huge financial loss, their record company, emi, cut them a deal. when heima came out, there would be an accompanying soundtrack cd to put in the shops. rather typically, the band didn't provide a soundtrack album, and instead went for a two-disc set called hvarf-heim. one disc consists of acoustic versions of six songs; the other contains six sigur rós rarities.

the band aren't doing any promotion for the film, just playing a series of small shows in a few cinemas worldwide before heima is premiered. as the band (in almost talkative form) say in the film, the reason for doing the icelandic tour was because they had just finished a two-year world tour on the back of the release of their last album, takk, and after all the adulation they wanted to go back to a country where nobody bothers them.

heima is book-ended by two very different summer-of-2006 shows. the first was one of the biggest ever gigs in reykjavik, when 20,000 people (including president ólafur ragnar grímsson) congregated for an outdoor spectacular. the second took place in a small coffee shop in the half-a-horse town of borg. in between is a variety of other atypical gigs as the band descend on big national parks, small community centres, outsider art shrines and one place that looks like a lunar middle-of-nowhere.

some of the shows were staged to make a point. the gig inside the herring tank was to draw attention to iceland's struggling fish industry and a gig outside a hydroelectric dam was a protest against how such constructions are ravaging the countryside.

you don't learn a whole lot new about the band members, but you do learn almost everything you need to know about iceland. heima is a gift to the icelandic tourist board. the country is displayed in all its weird glory. you simply couldn't imagine sigur rós originating from anywhere else.

sigur rós began making heima themselves. but when they looked back at the footage of their tour, they realised something was missing. so they handed over the reels to a longtime fan, film-maker dean deblois, who is probably best known for disney's lilo & stitch. deblois's first job was to get the band to agree to do on-camera interviews; he also gave a more cinematic touch to the tour footage.

musically, the highlights are many - the live renditions of glósóli, ágætis byrjun and hoppipolla are particularly stunning - but the real star of heima is iceland.

(brian boyd)



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