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pitchforkmedia review of ( )
rating: 7.6

( ) is a title with no pronunciation. people are imaginative creatures, though, and they'll find a way to refer to it somehow. when you tell your friends what you're listening to, you'll say, "the new sigur rós," or "sigur rós-- the one with the unpronounceable title." unfortunately, the gimmick doesn't end at the parentheses: more than merely an untitled record of eight untitled songs with no liner notes (the credits are only available on the band's website), ( ) comes with a booklet of twelve blank pages. i fail to see how this tactic enriches the band's cinematic balladry. art is ever the artist's child: it deserves a name.

sigur rós, of course, have claimed that the twelve blank pages are intended to serve a purpose. here, the band invites listeners to decipher jón ór birgisson's nonsensical "hopelandish" lyrics. to me, this seems as transparent as the booklet itself-- evidence that they just thought it would be cool to package the record this way is abundant, and the biggest clue lies in the lyrics. or, i should say, lyric: apart from track five ("alafoss") and parts of track six ("ebow"), there are but eleven syllables uttered on this entire album. spoiler: "you xylo. you xylo no fi lo. you so." the line is deconstructed so many times over the course of the album's duration as to mock any attempt at interpretation.

also, you'll notice i've referred to these songs by name. this is because, contrary to the record's omission, all eight of them had titles, on setlists and in concert introductions over the last two years. this standard treatment of the material prior to its release in minimalist packaging seems incongruous, but only, i suppose, to obsessive listeners-- a fair number of sigur rós's fans were clued-in by celebrities and entertainment weekly and won't bother with the details. they'll be as swept away by the "lush, glacial, swirling, scintillating, breath-taking, evocative" music of ( ) as they were by gtis byrjun. birgisson, after all, is equipped with the most gorgeous falsetto whinny since thom yorke emerged from his grunge cocoon, and exactness is not a prerequisite for enjoying it.

sigur rós' music has all the depth, resonance and humanity of a brueghel landscape, and is best appreciated at loud volumes in open spaces, as a soundtrack for scenery, real or imagined. ( )'s centerpiece, "njosnavelin", serves as a stunning example-- by far the most haunting dirge sigur rós have penned, birgisson's bowed guitar envelops and releases an insistent melody which echoes off damp stone walls, grounded first by a cathedral organ, and later by the twinkling chimes that reflect the frosted feel of the record's artwork. naturally, the song is nothing new for the band, but like the standout title track from their last album, it's the best application of the band's now-somewhat formulaic approach.

( ) splits its tracks into two groups of four with a thirty-second pause that comes at the close of "njosnavelin". it's a maneuver any number of bands have employed to replicate the artistic freedom of vinyl and cassette having separate and distinct sides. the first half of the album is studio-warm, full of carefully mixed, distant echoes. birgisson pitch-shifts his already stratospheric vocal range into near-chipmunks territory, ingraining the otherwise analog opener "vaka" with a mixed-media feel. it bleats like a child at its father's wake, relentlessly pining to crescendo before it collapses, exhausted, in its mother's arms. unfortunately, track three ("samskeyti") is a lesser facsimile of "vaka", which cheapens its resonance on repeat listens.

the second half of ( ) returns to the simpler sounds of gtis byrjun's ten-minute post-floyd jams-- passages in track five ("alafoss") and track seven ("death") all but namecheck dark side of the moon. the closer, "popp", meanwhile, will draw the expected radiohead comparisons ("like 'knives out' on a morphine drip..."); if it and radiohead's recent live material are any indication, the two bands are on a collision course: they should release the exact same album sometime in 2004.

sigur rós have confessed that touring this material for almost two years before recording it may have been a mistake. most miraculous albums convey the specific joy of documenting songs that are still new to the artist, and though ( ) is hardly as deflated or procedural as could be expected given material the band may well be sick of, it doesn't shine with the same nascent glimmer as its predecessor. if the band weren't so headstrong, it wouldn't even be a consideration, but from the beginning they've claimed they would change music forever, and that this record in particular would be even better than their "alright start" (the english translation of "gtis byrjun"). but despite its standout moments, the repetition of the album's central lyric and the relative lack of innovation in contrast to gtis byrjun can't deliver on such claims, and ( ) simply winds up a decent follow-up from a band who has already proven themselves capable of much, much more.

(chris ott)



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