Anyone lazy enough to describe Sigur Ros as “glacial’ deserves a good whack over the head with a thesaurus, and I bet the band are mightily sick of the descriptor too. Nevertheless, the opening sequence of Heima is almost embarrassingly obvious. Here they are, belting out “GlÃ³sÃ³li’ – a song that forever teeters on an edge between stomping stadium-rock and a genuinely hair-raising, marching-band-gone-celestial fervour – and, oh look, here comes the “Welcome to Iceland’ slide show. Mountainous peaks; crashing waterfalls; freezing rivers tinkling over dark rocks: it’s all here, inter-cut with the live footage. How do you say “cliche’ in Icelandic?
Stick with it. Trust me, things improve.
“Heima’ translates as “homeland’ but also as “at home’, and this film holds both meanings in the balance. It’s an exploration across a country and through fragments of its history; it’s also a retreat. Iceland is a ‘safe haven’, the place where, as keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson admits, ‘we are left alone.’ By all accounts Sigur Ros are not big in Iceland – their largely anglicised audience is scattered elsewhere across the globe – and a cynic might suggest that a series of free and largely unannounced concerts, as those documented here were, was the only way to create a decent enough illusion of homeland popularity. And yet, the longer the film goes on the further it undercuts your doubts over the band’ – or perhaps the record company’ – intentions. Sigur Ros appear genuine in their attempts to figure out just what Iceland might mean to them as musicians, and vice versa.
They’re certainly willing to give any conceivable venue a go, with or without an audience. An early highlight is an al fresco (al frozen might be more appropriate) performance of “Heysatan’, complete with harmonium and brass section, in a poignantly desolate field dotted with naÃ¯f sculptures and crumbling houses. The village of Seladalur is apparently well known for this frankly bizarre collection of plaster animals, and the folorn setting draws out the wintery, folkish tone of the song. But the best and most affecting performances are those that take place far beyond the margins of any tourist guidebook.
DjÃºpavik is an isolated, coastal dot that once supported a booming fish factory. Herring were pulled from the nearby waters in abundance and there were jobs to go around. Then the fish disappeared, leaving the factory and the ships to lie rotting and abandoned. Only two people now live in what was a harbour town. During daylight a truncated version of Sigur RÃ³s – singer JÃ³nsi Birgisson and supporting string section Amiina – wriggle down a pipe into a cavernous fish drum – a silo-sized kettle, in effect, for cooking herring. The circular space with its massive, inlaid element has the reverberative properties of a cathedral, and a elegiac reading of the unreleased “GÃtardjamm’, spliced with archival footage, becomes a wake for the building’ past life. Never has JÃ³nsi’ alien, keening falsetto sounded quite so appropriate as it does here.
This performance is followed by a vulnerable, entirely acoustic version of “Vaka’ – perhaps the best song in the Sigur RÃ³s catalogue – at a windswept protest camp high up in the mountains. KÃ¡rahnjÃºkar dam was built to service the electricity needs of an American aluminium factory, and when it was filled (just three weeks after the band’ performance), it flooded the largest pristine wilderness area left in Europe. In front of a handful of protestors and without any amplification, “Vaka’ redirects the vague sense of mourning that lies inside so much post-rock and fits it to the loss of an entirely specific landscape. Together, “GÃtardjamm’ and “Vaka’ demonstrate the best that post-rock is capable of; the possibility that the “post-‘ might mean something more than noodling around with effects pedals; that it might signal a willingness to engage, musically and emotionally, with the uncertainties and erasures of late capitalism.
There’ something curious about the economy of this band, that’s for sure. Heima must have cost an absolute bomb to make, filmed as it is on fearsomely high-definition digital video and impressively mixed in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Granted, they have the cash of a multi-national record company to back them up these days, but even during their time on an indie label Sigur RÃ³s were dedicated to excess in the single-minded pursuit of their aesthetic. This is the band that needed a crane to lift in the mixing desk used to record ( ) – still their darkest, most rewarding album – inside an abandoned swimming pool-turned-studio, yet turned down 2 million pounds from a British bank that wanted a 15-second snippet for an ad. Imagine the mixing desk that could have bought! Here they lug their enormous stage set-up over mountains and down valleys – it would be a SpÃ¯nal Tap-sized folly if the band weren’ so genuine, if they didn’ have this intuitive understanding of when to pull back from the edge of a cliff marked “Grandiose’. Even at their most widescreen – an engulfing, deafening “PopplagiÃ°’ in front of 25,000 people in Reykjavik – there’ an anguished awareness to Sigur RÃ³s that saves them from mere pathos. In the end, Heima seems a kind of community pageantry, like the old minstrels rolling their carts into the medieval town square to turn tricks for whoever might care to watch. A magic light and sound show for all ages, toddlers through to grandparents. Sometimes a celebration, sometimes a more melancholy rite. Heima won’ convert you if the unapologetic romanticism of Sigur RÃ³s has always left you unmoved, but I can think of worse things for music to be.
By Emmy Hennings