Sigur Rós Hvarf/Heim

[XL; 2007]

Styles: ethereal, elemental, bracing
Others: you can’t out-Sigur Rós Sigur Rós, Radiohead

The importance of the live album is traversing a slippery slope. Providing fans with a souvenir of concerts experienced and a portrait of an artist away from studio trickery, tracks tend to be more ragged in these incarnations, the vocals more authentic without the rough edges sanded away by a technician in a booth. Live albums strip away the permanence of a song, abolishing the studio track's status as the final evolution of a piece of music. Sometimes a live album is considered a band's finest (ahem, Cheap Trick).

But do live albums have relevance any longer? In a time of instant downloading, BitTorrent, digital recorders, and FLAC, can a studio continue competing against the innovation of technology and the ‘have-it-now’ mentality of zealous music fans? True, some musicians have battled the bootleggers by providing live recordings for sale right after a show, but those bands tend to be bloated cash cows that can carry that type of technology in their 50-bus cavalcade as they drift along this country's interstates each summer.

Never one to march with the norm, on Hvarf/Heim Sigur Rós has produced a live album with a twist. Initially conceived as a companion piece to the just released concert film/documentary Heima, Hvarf/Heim is designed to be both an odds-and-sods collection of rarities and acoustic performances captured live.

The music on the album, split across two EPs, is stunning. Most of the tracks off the first disc Hvarf, recorded between 1995 and 2002, are either previously unreleased or are superior versions of songs from the band's still-searching-for-that-sound debut, Von. Sigur Rós has trotted out some of these songs before during concerts, such as the haunting “Salka” and the dramatic “Í Gaer,” but this is the first time fans can hear non-bootleg versions of these nuggets.

The acoustic second disc Heim gives us "Vaka," the first track off ( ), now provided a title. It's a gorgeous rendition of a heartbreaking melody, filled out by the sounds of the string quartet Amiina. This version was recorded live in front of an audience of just dozens. The band had made a last-minute decision to visit with a group demonstrating against a dam that would flood acres of Icelandic wilderness. Since the audience protested a dam created to provide electricity, the band decided to play acoustically to keep with the spirit of the event. The idea for an acoustic live album was born.

It worked beautifully. On tracks like "Samskeyti," the once frosty piano now envelops the listener with much warmer tones. The version provided on Heim, recorded in a community hall after the audience had already left, spills off the album with a rich vibrancy; you could picture yourself there in an old Icelandic music hall, the music soaking into its ancient wood, drops of rain spattering the windows from outside.

Far from essential, Hvarf/Heim can merely be looked at as a stop-gap before the next proper record. As a document of the state of Sigur Rós in 2007, it is a bold statement to be looking backwards, rather than striving for a massive change in sound. Sigur Rós enthusiasts, like myself, will eagerly snatch up this rare and live material. For the casual fan, go buy Ágætis Byrjun or ( ) -- unless that fan-recorded show you've been downloading while reading this review is finished.


1. Salka
2. Hljómalind
3. Í Gaer
4. Von
5. Hafsól


1. Samskeyti
2. Starálfur
3. Vaka
4. Ágætis Byrjun
5. Heysátan
6. Von

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