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q review of 'hvarf/heim'

half-electric/half-acoustic companion to their tour film. features elves.

last summer sigur ros set out on a tour of their native iceland. the expedition would last two weeks and take them to some of the furthest-flung corners of this remote country. they laid on intimate shows in tiny corrugated-iron community halls, and colossal outdoor spectacles in the wilderness, with lava fields and darkening skies as a backdrop.

along for the ride was a 40-strong film crew, who captured the trip for the documentary heima (icelandic for "homeland"). one new song was filmed in a giant disused fish oil container, and the remaining live performances comprised a "greatest hits" of sigur ros - including hoppipolla, a surprise hit in 2006 after it was used to trail the bbc's planet earth.

you'd probably expect hvarf-heim to be a cd version of heima. you'd be wrong. sigur ros, who regularly flummox interviewers with monosyllabic stonewalling and once recorded an album in the made-up language hopelandic because they hadn't written any lyrics, are never a band to do things the conventional way. and so, this is billed as a "companion album", pulling together five unreleased studio off-cuts and six unplugged versions of songs from their back catalogue. the lavishly orchestrated sigur ros formula is by now firmly established but the electric tracks still impress. salka mingles waves of ambient rock with the choirboy showboating of singer jonsi birgisson, a man whose blindness in one eye and penchant for oddball headgear gives him the air of a norse thorn yorke. one "new" track, i gaer, proves revelatory.

paced as effectively as a john carpenter horror classic, it builds from icicle-laden wonder to snarling intensity, and positions sigur ros on the same spectrum of proggy nihilism as radiohead and pink floyd. the acoustic section is less assured. samskeyti is faithfully rendered with wheezy accordion and cyclical piano motifs, but the effect can be rather sterile, more academic philip glass minimalism than chill-out classic. such doubts evaporate for the meditative vaka, which glides on swollen strings and a spellbinding birgisson vocal.

on its own terms - striving to be more interesting than the standard live album -hvarf-heim is clearly a success. but non-believers may well continue to wonder about what all the critical fuss is about. certainly, the language barrier has led many to credit sigur ros with more existential depth than is actually there. translations available on the internet reveal that staralfur, for example, is about falling asleep in bed and being visited by a "little elf".

(rob fearn)



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