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A Blank Canvas 

Existential + nihilism = Sigur Rós

The 2011 Sigur Rós film for the double live album Inni depicts the unconventional Icelandic rock band—known for an ethereal-sounding bow guitar—in antique black and white, using odd camera angles to generate ghostly imagery. Lead singer Jónsi Birgisson is more a falsetto specter than performer. Frame by frame, the resulting movie manifests as an hourlong Rorschach test. It is, in a word, captivating.

While the pairing of the band's mammoth orchestral sound with Birgisson's delicate voice makes for beautiful music, Sigur Rós has released seven studio albums devoid of concrete substance. By Birgisson's own admission, the band's songs have no inherent meaning. (So Icelandic of him.) In his words: "The songs are about nothing."

If that sounds a bit like nihilism—on one level, the belief that there is no universal truth—it's definitely by design. The band's third album, ( ), used a form of gibberish called "Hopelandic" rather than the band's native language, Icelandic. Listeners were meant to scribble their own lyrics in the blank pages of the album's jacket, creating individualized meaning for the songs.

In this way, the vigorous and jagged music of Sigur Rós both embraces and slightly defies the nihilist moniker. Some truth, albeit a personal one, can arise from listening. Amid the thunderous drums and chilling guitar, a slow-burning idea eventually takes shape in the mind. But because that feeling or idea isn't supported by anything tangible—like specific lyrics in the songs—it remains a flirtation with nihilism. The conjured idea is a fantasy, only real to one person, not the collective.

The struggle of those two phenomena is what has drawn people to the music of Sigur Rós since the band first gained traction in the States through its appearance in the film Vanilla Sky. Neither Birgisson nor his bandmates, Georg "Goggi" Holm and Orri Páll Dýrason, ever cross the line by defining their music during interviews. They are as aloof as musicians come—as mysterious as their music.

In the resulting void, the rising and tumbling stormy music becomes whatever the listener wants it to become. That is why fans form such personal attachments to Sigur Rós songs; the meanings can evolve as their lives change.

From this array of nothingness, Sigur Rós has accomplished much. The band sells out shows wherever it goes and has sold millions of records. Bandmates have branched out into various solo careers and collaborations, and have even appeared as animated versions of themselves—albeit with yellowy skin—on last week's episode of "The Simpsons." Clearly, the band built on communicating nothing has created something. Sigur Rós' music is the perfect metaphor for the sometimes magnificent, sometimes bleak lunar-esque landscape of Iceland—filled with crashing emotion and moments of stark bliss. It's a journey anyone can take for the price of a $40 concert ticket or a $10 album. But in the end no two adventures will ever be exactly alike. SW

Sigur Rós

6:30 pm Sunday, May 26

Les Schwab Amphitheater

344 SW Shevlin-Hixon Drive

Tickets $44 at bendticket.com.

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...
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