Górecki’s Symphony No.3 (better known as Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs), as played by the London Sinfonietta in 1991, was the best-selling contemporary classical record across the 90s. In 1994, Sigur Rós formed in Reykjavík, first signing with the Sugarcubes-owned label Bad Taste. Now that Sigur Rós have become a signifier of high-class good taste, their eighth album – Átta is Icelandic for eight – indisputably shares its mood and DNA with Górecki’s fusion of the avant-garde and the tear-jerking.
It’d be daft to say it was on the same level, but structurally it whispers and murmurs, keeping its powder dry until, with a cathartic release, it lets out its tension like a storm breaking after much quietly stressful humidity. Which is, frankly, just as well, because for almost an hour it quivers along a thin line between boring and beautiful.
It’s their first studio album in 10 years, and perhaps there’s a reaction here to 2013’s Kveikur, an uncharacteristically aggressive act of industrialism that had more in common with rock than the band’s signature swooning. And perhaps some real-world stuff has subliminally entered their creative world: the departure of drummer Orri Páll Dýrason after a sexual assault accusation (which he denied), plus four years of Sigur Rós battling tax evasion charges, ultimately dismissed just months ago. Singer Jónsi Birgisson moved to Los Angeles, disillusioned with his homeland.
All this sits uncomfortably with our view of Sigur Rós as magic moon-faced elves making wonders directly mainlined from the gods. So if Átta is them aiming high, holy and unworldly, one can understand their motivation, their doubling down on escaping from reality.
Keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson has rejoined after a nine-year sabbatical, so he, bassist Georg Hólm and all-rounder Jónsi (whose sky-high voice flutters in and out, again keener on sounds and effect than literal meaning) play this pensive music, with the London Contemporary Orchestra then overlaid at Abbey Road. Jónsi has spoken of intending it to be “floaty, sparse and beautiful”, as they looked for balm after personal and global turbulence. And it is, in the main, calm, although something about its relentless churchiness, its constant proximity to the religious can make one feel claustrophobic, compelled to be on best behaviour. An urge to kick down the statues has to be fought against.
Filmmakers and wildlife documentarians will be queueing up. Sad yet defiant, surfing slowly between dejection and euphoria, Átta is Sigur Rós doing their precious thing, but moving more like glaciers than ever.
Átta is available to buy or stream