Sigur Rós @ The Pageant
St. Louis, Missouri

Sigur Rós makes beautiful and unique symphonic rock. The band has been an indie darling since 1999's “Agætis Byrjun” release attracted the attention of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, thrusting four shy boys from Iceland into the spotlight.

And of course they're going to take to the spotlight their way. On Tuesday night at the Pageant the band played its opening song from behind a sheer curtain. Abstract looped films projected onto the curtain gave the stage a surreal, holographic feel. Simple but creative stage lighting made the figures onstage appear giant then tiny as the pounding music grew louder.

Sigur Rós' soundscapes are alternately meditative and euphoric, and one expected the curtain to quickly drop to the stage as the music crescendoed, but Sigur Rós is far too complex to go for such obvious visual drama. The curtain pulled away slowly and we finally got a look at the thin, hunched specter of singer/guitarist Jónsi Birgisson, playing his guitar with a cello bow, accompanied by bandmates Kjartan Sveinsson on keyboards, Georg Hólm on bass and Orri Páll Dýrason on drums.

They played songs from several albums, including “Agætis Byrjun,” “()” (their dark, less-thrilling, but Grammy-nominated follow-up) and “Takk...” (their most recent, and slightly more accessible release). In those recordings, the vocals have frequently been used as an instrument, meaning they don't necessarily tell stories but fill spaces and create sounds and atmosphere -- few of us understand Icelandic or Birgisson's made-up language of “Hopelandic” anyway. In a live setting, his odd falsetto became loud and less-refined as the night wore on. Ninety minutes of that high shrieking proved somewhat uncomfortable compared to the perfectly-produced whispers and wails Birgisson has made in the studio.

At times, Sigur Rós let the sonic landscapes get plodding, as if it were daring the crowd to become restless. But the band always pulled it back together with certain majesty, anchored by Dýrason's resolute drumming, bringing the church of the Victory Rose back into glory.

Only wildly dedicated fans could name the title of every song played. Not only are most of the Icelandic song titles unpronounceable to the average English-speaking listener (“Svefn G englar” is a good example), there is a dreamy, soundtrack-like similarity to the band's catalog. More about overall mood than individual moments, Sigur Rós' surreal compositions make the perfect soundtrack to those prized dreams in which we can fly.

Opening act Amina, which also backed Sigur Rós as a string quartet, made quiet meditations that sounded fragile and pretty, like a music box. The 30 minute set by four women featured a variety of delicate string, mallet and digital compositions with a wonderful childlike beauty.

Sigur Rós played for an hour and a half, including two short encores, and took two curtain calls with Amina. Arms wrapped around each other and smiling broadly as they took a long bow, the eight onstage seemed as thrilled with the experience as the sold-out crowd.

By Bill Keaggy | Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2006i am