Valtari 2LP Double LP
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Double vinyl LP pressing. 2012 release from the highly acclaimed Icelandic band. In English, Valtari translates as "steamroller" and there is something right about the title in terms of the process of its creation. The last three tracks of Valtari are like one long slow gorgeous fade out, as the listener, having been softened up by the slightly more "song-y" start to the album, is left with the subtly shifting, deep introspective beauty of the last 24 minutes. After that, penultimate track, Valtari is like the far heart of the album; eight minutes that feel like being alone in row boat on a chill day.
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It should also be noted that any Sigur Ros album is an ALBUM, meaning you should really listen to it from beginning to end, no skips or rewinds. It is a narrative of sorts, and should be experienced that way. That being said, I have to point out that Varúð and Fjögur píanó are two stand-out tracks worthy of the admission price alone. Varúð especially. That is one of the greatest songs I've heard in years. I love every song, but those are the stand-outs in my opinion.
OVERALL: If you're a longtime fan of Sigur Ros, prepared to be pleased. If you're just getting in on the game, Valtari is as great of a place to start as any. Newbies might also want to check out the song Saeglópur - it's another one of my favorites.
I was determined to have the music on the new disc move me with the same impact I felt from Agaetis Byrjun,() and Takk. I kept anticipating the barren cold textures, the unexpected sweeping turns and finally, the breathtaking climaxes (the "I need a cigarette kind!") It never happened; what a disappointment.
Then something else happened...After an extremely tiring yet pleasurable surf session, I decided to try Valtari again. Exhausted, I closed my eyes and listened without expectations. By the second track, Ekki Mukk, I felt as if a door had been opened. Next, Varuo completely took me over (tears escaped my closed eyes.) I started seeing colors. I felt as if I was still in the Pacific riding waves. The music, just like surfing, had picked me up and moved me. In the ocean, one can not make a wave. When listening to Sigur Ros, the listener can't make the music move them.
My assessment: The first five tracks pour in, a liquid steamroller. Jonsi's vocals rise and fall like an ocean wave. The final three songs are mostly instrumental and lovely, almost like one merging outro. These last three, a sailboat riding the tide out and taking the listener to relative safety of the sea. The soft ending is welcome after the beauty and glory by the shore.
Please excuse the dramatic metaphors; I know it sounds pretentious. But every word and sound rings true for me. So please, long-time fans, give the record a chance; don't compare it to their storied past. Newbies: just get on board and enjoy the ride...
Standouts include the tender piano/string "Varúð" with Jónsi's ethereal vocals juxtaposed against an ornate soundscape with strings and harmonies ascending to a skyscraping climax. Awesome and enthralling, my favourite. "Rembihnútur" is a gently ascending number with Jónsi coming in midway, while "Dauðalogn" is like a Hymn. Jónsi sings on the first 5 tracks, while "Varðeldur", "Valtari", and "Fjögur píanó" (the latter with delicately tinkling keys) are largely instrumental with Jónsi's harmonies adding instrumental tone on some.
The music is dense and requires time for everything to come into focus, but once it does, there's no letting go.
I love the fact that they didn't simply churn out another album with the usual post-rock conventions, as other reviewers have mentioned; even though they would've done a fine job I'm sure. The whole "build-up to a beautiful crescendo that overflows into shimmering bliss" is great, but predictable after the genre's been around for 10 years and then some.
For "Valtari" it seems the band went into it with a creative, more experimental idea in mind. There are lots of layered sounds, parts that've been slowed down, etc. It's as if Jonsi brought the idea for he & Alexs' "Riceboy Sleeps" (dreamy soundscapes) album and SR decided to do a similar thing, but actively use more studio manipulation to bring the atmosphere closer to the intended emotional response. Usually I can smell the stench of studio tinkering a mile away, and it distracts/detracts from the music; not here in the least, however--the puzzle is complete in all its airy-but-full, "small-feel" glory. It all creates a floating feeling that isn't jarring to the ears in the least; although many will likely complain that it's nothing more than a sleep aid. I'm also partial to ambient music, so my likings may be explained there.
"Valtari" also really grasps the feelings in some of the sets/stages in the "Heima" DVD, with more intimacy in the playing than I've heard in any of their other releases. Liked it so much I had to get the double LP.
Unlike Agaetis Byrjun and Takk... there is no outright moment of conversion when the group's artistic style bows to its new prince. There's no single song on Valtari that can stand alone like Hjartað Hamast or Glósóli. You experience from song to song a steady widening that slowly inflates the boundaries of what they've built in the past. Adding nothing, Valtari spreads the old pieces around in a dark room waiting for the participant to fumble his way to them and lay his hands on them. I think this is what the New York Times' Jon Pereles, the most apt of the Valtari critics, meant when he wrote that "each of the new songs looms within a larger, obsessively detailed ambience . . . as if the band's old pure musical sanctuary has been overgrown and started to crumble, with different light and air glinting through the cracks," except that I don't agree the softening is really like the passage of time. This is just a positive spin on the critics' observation. To show this I'll merit his metaphor with an extension. The sanctuary was always overgrown and crumbling, but Agaetis and ( ) were so deep inside it you wouldn't know. Takk was really the first sight of washed out light seeping in. Valtari has tentatively emerged.
You can even note a difference among Sigur Rós fans, too. Valtari has separated the sheep from the goats. (As a clue to who is who, it's significant that one bandmember has said Valtari is the only album he'll sit down and listen to.) This is a work that demands your time and patience, and the half of us just waiting for flair give up on it. I listened to the album twice (without breaks) with the expectation of just familiarizing myself. Music usually grips, excites, or fractures me. Each listen, my experience came up just a little short of what I wanted, and I deferred my "real" listen to the future. Before my third time I recognized it was the moment, and this time I heard it as something from the past, maybe jumping over the present to the future, but certainly not something existing then at that hour I could affect intellectually. After about fifteen minutes I stopped thinking about the music, and I felt like a stone had been dropped into the surface of my mind as into a lake, and I observed, in medias res, the chords and harmonies as ripples spreading out smoothly within me. It was a calming word: "You are capable of waiting; you waited for this." I have never been so abundantly awarded by contemporary music. Valtari hasn't gotten over the old albums. It has consummated them.
I suppose that's why they say this is the classical music of the twenty-first century. At the same time, this is a vignette, not a masterpiece. I think even those other fans defending it will agree with me on this one. You do have to hear the album end-to-end, and it operates more as an artistic moment than a narrative or epic. I think that's a good thing. Jonsi has said enough pretentious things in the past to make me believe they'd attempt the latter too soon. But they may be prepared now, with Valtari as groundwork. Whether or not Sigur Rós need a long haitus like their inspiration, Arvo Pärt, in order to achieve that, their flock will wait to see.