SIGUR ROS London Brixton Academy 09 March 2013
Were this an NME review, inevitably someone, somewhere would post the usual “were you even at the same gig as me?” bullshit. Yes, I was at the same gig. But I did not have the same experience as you. If we all had the same experience at the same place, and the same time,everyone would be dancing with joy at the thought of David Cameron winning another election : whilst some of this country are stockpiling for their inevitable ATOS-assessed fit-for-work suicide bid, or dreading their children eating the wallpaper as the money inexorably flows into the pockets of the rich.
“Like watching your first born” - @somepillock on Twitter.
I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting tonight. Last time I saw Sigur Ros, they were a sparse fourpiece, in daylight, in rain and wind, in a field in Oxford, largely soundtracking the boredom of 40,000 people queuing for beer tokens before Radiohead came on stage. At the time, I thought that it might have been the setting, the ambience. Like trying to watch “Koyannisqatsi” in a nightclub on a Friday night. After 11 years, and 11 years of fervent listening, I finally get to experience Sigur Ros live in a darkened room.
And the spell is shattered.
From the moment we arrive at the Brixton Academy, any magic is smashed. According to the curt security, its the law that I get groped by a bloke, and the ladies get groped by women. I've always been too old to have my balls felt up by someone I've never met, especially under the suspiscion of taking weaponry to a Sigur Ros gig. That's right, I'll stare at the ceiling at pretend this isn't happening, whilst you stick your hands in every pocket, wonder quizzically at my Darth Vader keyring, grope my iPod, and demand I take my shoes off to check for concealed explosive and a metal detector. Maybe not the last two, but this is how it feels. Get your fucking hands out of my pockets. It isn't just me : security is getting worse – ruder, more intrusive, uglier, less trusting. We are no longer people, just cattle to be herded to our corporate-approved £7.85 for a Red Bull and Double Vodka entertainment. Talking of which, the o2 Brixton Academy should not be advertising. £7.85 for that? That's a scandal. Almost as bad as when I was charged £5 for a can of Magners at Kraftwerk. If I'd've known I'd smuggled one in for 2-for-£3 from the Tescos.
I swear. It's not that I am 'getting old'. That phrase doesn't mean anything. I've just seen too much shit, and my tolerance for the unneccessary and the degrading is worn thin. The world is a game, and it plays us all like a violin until our dreams are memories.
As 9.00 arrives, the lights dim, and Sigur Ros arrive. They perform with conviction and with a carefully prepared, tight magic, a powerful music machine that is, thankfully, uncompromising artistically and musically singular in vision. But, for this music to work, you have be willing to give yourself completely, free and empty your mind, and explore. But that is not where I am, and frankly, that's a degree of commitment you cannot always give.
Therefore, whilst Sigur Ros played a blinder, it was, for me, in one of the worst gig experiences I have. Down there with Tool at Brixton, Happy Mondays at Clapham Common, and the risibly twee Belle & Sebastian, a band surgically neutered to be as offensive as possible.
From the opening moments, Brixton is mostly made of two types of people, open mouthed, stunned people finally reconnected to the feelings they have forgotten in the world, and wankers filming it with their iPhones. Look at me! I'm filming a gig! On and on it goes. I end up watching at least one song through the screen of a phone. On twitter, comments are about the visuals. The films. Jonsi's clothes. What about the fucking music? It may be an experience, but it isn't immersive, more alienating, especially when some drunk woman turns up half an hour late and bounces around joyously.
This lightshow looks fantastic through the smashed screen of your Shitty iPhone. God bless the day Steve Jobs decided, three weeks before release, that what the iPhone needed wasn't a smashproof plastic housing, but a fancy piece of fragile glass. When not in use, that picture of your loved one has been fractured like an advert for “Black Mirror.” It's not quite as vile as the moment, when I had the misfortune to see The Scissor Sisters, someone filmed them performing “Take Your Mama”, the spent the rest of the subsequent song watching what they had just filmed. Golgafrincham isn't just the majority of the Sigur Ros experience, it's an insult.
Whilst the band – now a trio with the departure of longstanding keyboard player Fliggen Hjiughafgt** – are ably supported by an extra keyboard player, a second guitarist, and a choir of six backing singer / string players, are locked into a tight and solid mood, there is no doubt that this is mostly the Sigur Ros show : the extra musicians are determined shilouettes, the backing films, mountains, stars, raindrops, occasional cityscapes,given more prominence. It reminds me, oddly, of the hollow shell that was Blur's final tour as an active entity in 2003. The ratio of actual members on stage to other musicans is 8:3, or, if you prefer, 72.2% hired hands.
Back lit, with huge shadows on drapes, the experience is all about an evocation of an atmosphere, where the power of the human imagination allows you to drift away and lose yourself. But for me, the atmosphere they are at great pains to project turns out to be not very much at all. It's all abstract. If all art is communication, this is so vague as to be an artistic fog, where little makes sense, where what they wish to communicate is unclear – if anything – and whilst perhaps there is a primal sense of primitive wonder to this, it's also the soundtrack to a million penguin clips from BBC documentaries, and a thousand imaginary problems. You have food and clothes and a bed and enough money to spend £30 on this, so perhaps you need to remember what you have, not what you don't.
Amongst all this, there is new material, that like everything else they have released, sounds both instantly familiar and absolutely alien at the same time. This, the first as a trio, is different, more organic, more fleshy, made with electronics, and reminds me of the coiled, rhythmic revamp of “I Want You Now” Depeche Mode used to play live two decades ago.
52 minutes in, Jonsi, finally acknowledges us with a mediocre greeting, and then it's “Hoppipolla” Moshpit of Nodders, as the audience briefly comes alive before it falls to chin stroking contemplation of whatever it is with “Olsen Olsen”. There's little sign of better-known songs such as “Ekki Mukk”, “Gobbledigook”, “Inni Mer”, as if they have made the decision to eschew crowd pleasers in favour of a set of early album tracks and new material. Unless you are somewhere, staring rapt and alone at the huge screen and every last blink of the band, it can be curiously alienating. Like being at a football match : what is it they are getting that I am not? Am I missing something? What is it?
In the lobby,the television shows what looks like an accompanying film. Human beings running, in grainy black & white. After a while, it becomes apparent. I can buy special pre-sale tickets for One Direction at the O2 Arena. Offer expires 11.9.2011.
On the other hand, there's a moment during (I think) “Kveikur” where Jonsi holds a note for 45 seconds*. It closes, and the entire hall is rapt in either silence, or boredom. With a moment of dramatic pause, the room is silent. Apart from one bloke who starts singing the next line, bravely, the next line “OOOOOOOA JKO-”
He suddenly shuts up, and most of downstairs laughs and applauds. It is live, after all.
It's not a bad performance, but it is, for me a thoroughly unenjoyable experience, and one that, come the conclusion of the main set, I have an overwhelming urge to leave I misguidedly fight. The next two songs do nothing to alleviate my sense of boredom and disconnection from the majority of the human beings around me. I certainly wasn't in the right frame of mind, and the night did not ever connect with me. Not because of the show or the strength of how they played, because both were, in the right context, magnificent, but because I was there, but not there, after having been groped by a rude bastard in a yellow jacket to check that I hadn't brought knives to a night of Icelandic Ambient Rock, and rudely pulled out of reverie by the sight of A Million iPhones Over Brixton, that I just could not forget that I was standing in a hot room surrounded by 5,000 people, most of whom were drinking £4.85 plastic cups of alcohol or filming it with bright cameras. The spell was broken, and I could not get back to wherever I wanted to go. I was underwhelmed.
*the record I have seen is 54 seconds during “Prayers For Rain” by The Cure at the Birmingham NEC in 1996
** Not actual name.