By removing a key element of their sound and not allowing themselves their usual cooked-to-perfection studio time, the members of Iceland's most majestic, respected, and popular band has issued itself a serious challenge. On album number five, Sigur Rós has basically ditched the bowed electric guitar sound that helped define them for years. The songs have quieted considerably, and scratchy surfaces have arisen that weren't there before. That news might give diehards—a surprisingly large group for a non-English speaking band specializing in lofty orchestral rock—reason for worry, but it shouldn't. Sigur Ros make perfect music—they're just doing it a little differently on Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (translation: "with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly").
Sigur Rós gave devotees further reason to worry with the early release of album opener "Gobbledigook," the least Sigur Rós -like track of its career: It's unusually reliant on acoustic guitar, it chugs along instead of floating, and it sounds hurried instead of carefully measured. (It also sounds remarkably like latter-day Radiohead, but with organic hum and strum replacing insistent electro-clicks.) An album full of these might've been too jarring, but it segues quickly into a sun-bursting-through-the-clouds epic, "Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur," to set things right. "Vid Spilum Endalaust" is similarly joyous, with horns and strings providing the foundation that Jonsi Birgisson's guitar usually does. "Med Sud í Eyrum" will have fans of the sadder, more contemplative third album ( ) in thrall with its hypnotically downcast rhythm and vocal melody.
Those sides—the sunburst and raincloud sides—meet in the massive "Ára Bátur," which begins with simple piano and voice, content to luxuriate in Birgisson's beautiful voice for five minutes before bringing in the London Sinfonietta and London Oratory Boy's Choir to add a massive emotional swell. At its peak, it hews a little too close to a Hollywood soundtrack—expect Julia Roberts to come rushing through the door—but it's tempered by the band's affection for left turns. Plus, it offers a peak for the album's final songs to come down from: There's intimate and gorgeous (the acoustic-and-voice "Illgresi" and the orchestra-and-voice "Fljótavík"), a bit of instrumental palate cleanser ("Straumnes"), and finally the band's first track sung in English, "All Alright," whose strings, muted horns, and slurred vocals retain plenty of mystery despite the lack of language barrier. It's a gorgeous descent for an inimitable group that knows better than most how to deliver its highs high and its lows low.