After nearly a decade of unhurried, frequently majestic music, Sigur Rós’ 2008 LP Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust found the Icelandic band working in its most traditional and commercial vein to date. Song lengths were primarily under the five-minute mark, and the lead single, “Gobbledigook,” was like a campfire sing-along compared to the complex, patiently unfolding epics of the past. (The album even had a song sung in English.) With a steady stream of detours and side projects in recent years, it seemed like Sigur Rós’ abstract side was going to be farmed out to lower-profile releases from here on out. But with Með’s official follow-up, Valtari, Sigur Rós delivers a nearly percussion-free batch of ambient soundscapes that may frustrate fans of its more direct predecessor, but ranks among the group’s most elegant records.
Dialing back on the melodrama, Valtari feels like an early Sigur Rós record without the once-inevitable crescendos. The throwback feel is no accident: Recording began in 2007, and its earliest roots lie in sessions with a London choir four years earlier. The closest precedent for Valtari is Jónsi & Alex, the modern classical and ambient project co-led by Sigur Rós singer Jónsi that features both choral work and contributions from string quartet Amiina.
The relative restraint on the single “Ekki Múkk” and other more straightforward songs like “Varúð” and “Rembihnútur” is a welcome shift for the group, ditching the bigger-is-better grandiloquence and predictable arcs of Sigur Rós’ recent work. But the trio of fragile instrumental reveries that close the record elevate Valtari into the upper tiers of the Sigur Rós catalog, projecting a sense of calm and confidently treating mood and atmosphere as worthwhile ends rather than stepping stones. It’s a final successful gambit on a record full of them.