Album Review: Sigur Rós – ÁTTA

[BMG; 2023]

A lot can happen in 10 years. Consider where you were at 15 vs. where you were at 25. Sophomore year of high school vs. a couple years removed from your college graduation. Add another 10 in, and you may have children, or a spouse, or a home. In our real lives, 10 years can fit an almost baffling amount of changes, shifts, turns, pivots, upswings, and downturns. It moves slow and yet blindingly fast.

In the music world, 10 years is a lifetime. If a band goes dormant for a decade, it’s usually more than enough to believe the band won’t be coming back, at least not until we’re even farther down the wormhole of time and it becomes a “comeback” or “reunion.” But sometimes, when a band or artist takes that extended break for writing and recording, they return rejuvenated and refreshed, reminding us why we enjoyed their work in the first place and why we have missed it over the year. ÁTTA is one of those times.

Icelandic post-rock heroes Sigur Rós return with their eighth album (the title is Icelandic for “eight”), and first since 2013’s dark and dramatic Kveikur. In the meantime, the members have kept mostly busy. The band also released the soundtrack for an Icelandic opera they composed, Odin’s Raven Magic, in 2020. Lead singer and guitarist Jónsi has put out two solo albums of chilly electronic pop. And keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson spent some time composing for film. But they haven’t come together to release a proper Sigur Rós album for a whole decade. It feels like no time has passed and yet like we are miles away from 2013.

Sveinsson is actually an interesting part of that feeling. Returning for the first time since 2012’s divisive Valtari, it must not be a coincidence that his last album with the group was one of their most feathery and serene, as ÁTTA follows a similar path (the band reportedly tried to use as little drumming as possible). Along with Jónsi and Georg Hólm, the trio brings their talents together to form what is, at least in 2023 (24 years on from their groundbreaking Ágætis Byrjun) the platonic ideal formation of Sigur Rós. Each of them composing and playing numerous instruments, and often recording alongside the strings of the London Contemporary Orchestra and brass from Brassgat í bala, ÁTTA is rich, detailed, and immaculately produced.

Opening with some glitchy vocalization over a dreamy soundscape, a bit reminiscent of Jónsi’s work with Alex Somers in Riceboy Sleeps, ÁTTA really gets moving with first single “Blóðberg”. Singing in a slow and steady voice, Jónsi’s entrance feels like the return of an old friend. He never sounds better than when he’s singing with the band, and “Blóðberg” proves that. With little more than the lilting orchestra and a heavy bass synth, the song moves in a Stars of the Lid-esque undulation, and it is utterly beautiful. Some of the melodic turns of the orchestra are simply breathtaking, and give the impression floating over a vast ocean, an impression of discovery. Eventually, his trademark falsetto comes, and the treated guitar slides in, and we’re ushered, ever so softly, into the stratosphere.

The album stands at 10 songs and almost an hour in length, but unfolds mostly as one continuous piece, with pretty seamless transitions between most songs and very few pauses. Third track “Skel” sounds like one of Björk’s orchestral works, with Jónsi cooing atop the effervescent, heart-tugging glow. The song quickly (relatively speaking, anyway) blooms into such an immense height; it’s remarkable considering how little there is in the way of usual bombast — no big timpanis, no screaming synths, just strings, bass, piano, and voice. But oh, that voice. Echoing off the whirlpool, Jónsi sings straight into an ether beyond time, subsuming himself and taking us with him.

On “Mór”, the gurgling keys and dusty strings make it feel like we’re underwater, especially as Jónsi sings in his quieter, lower register, backed by a ghostly choir, before his falsetto comes down like blades of sun. “Andrá” is possibly the most pop-oriented song here, with a recognizable progression to the addition of its layers, and an indelible melody backed by sunny keys and the somewhat shocking passage of acoustic guitar plucking. “Ylur” feels like classic Sigur Rós, Jónsi’s deeply emotive voice jutting out atop churning strings and synth.

ÁTTA isn’t all powdery light and water. When the drums do come, they hit. Things start a bit sour and menacing on “Klettur”, reminding us a little of their more aggressive Kveikur days, and the drums come pounding in, providing a tense backdrop for the soaring melodies. “Gold”, similarly, has a time-keeping drum that adds to its pomp and scale. The compositions on ÁTTA sometimes are so dense that the production does, occasionally, threaten to lose its details in the sheer enormity of its scope, becoming a little too oceanic for its own good. But the sum of ÁTTA’s parts come together into such a satisfying whole, it isn’t much of a problem. 

It all leads up to the epic, 10-minute finale, “8”. Starting with some disembodied vocals, a bassy string part soon swoops in. Then the piano. Then Jónsi’s voice, bright and incisive. It grows and grows, and then, suddenly, nearly vanishes. Keys drop in the quiet air, like tiny icicles, the song showing us its carved-out core. We are carried out to sea, in the album’s final moments, the sounds coalescing into a warm ember to be our beacon. It’s a stirring goodbye, and lends an elliptical air to the entire project, redolent of its earliest breaths an hour prior.

In a lot of ways, it makes sense that the last full-length project we got from the band was an opera soundtrack, because ÁTTA is incredibly dramatic, often sounding like a score to some lost, particularly intense film. The choirs, the mammoth strings, the different movements, the minutes that pass without Jónsi’s voice anchoring as he lets the music do the talking — it all makes ÁTTA stand tall in an already distinguished discography. It’s glacial and icy, and then it’s dazzling and blistering, and then it settles again. It’s a little heavier than Valtari but less chaotic than Kveikur, instead sitting at a neat nexus between the two, a surprisingly fantastic late-career record.

There are times when ÁTTA threatens to get a little too homogenous, but every time it’s on the verge of growing stale, some odd choice or melodic turn materializes, right in time, to pivot us back into the light. Most often, it feels like we are constantly surging toward something, some great sight out on the horizon, with these musicians as our guide. Sigur Rós have already proven themselves across their lengthy career, and now, they’re peaking their heads out yet again and making clear they shouldn’t be counted out.