Tuesday 3 September 2013

Sigur Rós, Poliça @ The iTunes Festival, The Roundhouse

By comparison to the pop absurdity of Lady Gaga’s opening to the iTunes Festival (the remnants of which still trickled down from the ceiling in ticker tape form), Sigur Ros couldn’t be more different.  This was the serious gig of the festival – musicians for musos.

Musicality is certainly what links Sigur Rós and support act Poliça – that and the sheer scale of their respective sounds.  In pride of place at the core of Poliça’s set-up were dual drummers both playing drum and electronic kits, sometimes totally synchronized and at others playing in counter-rhythm.  The effect was truly mesmerising as they played off one another with both subtle beats and cataclysmic power.  They were joined by funk bass lines, glittering electronics and the remarkable vocal of singer Channy Leaneagh.  In contrast to the percussive heavyweights, her voice effortlessly ebbed and flowed over the top, characterised by ethereal, alien auto-tune.  Her vocal and dynamic range also impressed in an impassioned performance – “you were mean to me”, she cooed on one song with delicate fragility.  Poliça did leave the audience feeling a little cold, however.  Perhaps it was the lack of banter, the fact Leaneagh only smiled once she left the stage, the indistinct lyrics, or the fact they sometimes felt less like a band and more like session musicians performing in an interesting experiment.  Yet their sound is so unique that musicianship is thrust ahead of performance.  The new tracks (taken from their forthcoming second album ‘Shulamith’) provided a welcome, more upbeat sound – expectations are high for next month’s release.

Sigur Rós, of course, feature the remarkable vocal of Jonsi Birgisson for a similarly ethereal (yet lyrically indistinct) sound.  His is a vocal of purity and vulnerability, filled with emotion that negates any language barriers.  The held note in the middle of Festival left the audience especially captivated.

What’s most remarkable about Sigur Rós, however, is their incredibly rich, lush sound.  Watching the technicians beforehand was a show in itself, with such a plethora of instruments – from percussion, drums and guitars to piano, strings, horns, xylophones, organs and more.  The result is music with huge resonance and impact that completely overwhelmed the audience, including techniques synonymous with the band like bowed electric guitar and singing into the guitar.  The muscular sound was matched by cinematic and abstract visual projections and a stunning light display.  Together, they brought a touch of frosty Iceland to a sweltering Roundhouse crowd, with shuddering tectonic tracks from recent album ‘Kveikur’ slotting in amongst lofty fan favourites from ‘Takk’ and beyond: queasy yellow lighting matched the sulphuric Brennistein; the all-female chorale of Varúð was a haunting penultimate track; and the crescendo of Hoppípolla was the closest the venue could have to a firework display.

As a whole, though, the performance was equal parts hypnotic and monotonous.  For all their moments of magnificence, some tracks tend to blur together in a watercolour wash of sound – in particular lesser known tracks from ‘()’ that frequently lack the recognisable bittersweet melodies of more popular material.  The slow-motion pace, endless crescendos and self-indulgent playing aren’t for everyone, but when they hit their peak the effect is spine-tinglingly magical.


Watch: The full set can be streamed on the iTunes Festival app.