When you see a band like Sigur Rós in a cemetery, then you’re not just going to some concert, you’re going for an experience. In fact, whenever bands play the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, they always add some kind of visual or sound installation before the show even begins. When I saw instrumental-rock quartet Explosions in the Sky at the Cemetery last year, visual artists created installations that responded and interpreted songs from their latest album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. And on Sunday night, that was again the case before the show even began when first walking through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with a sound installation that Sigur Rós did. Amplifiers were placed next to graves along the walking path playing sounds like church bells or people talking about those they have lost. And at times, it would be playing random sounds of ambience to create layers of textures. The sound installation combined with the performance conjured up themes of romanticism and memory. Well, those themes may be a bit subjective, but what I’m trying to say is that their performance drew out all kinds of different feelings and emotions. If there is one common word to describe the whole night, it’s what frontman Jónsi Birgisson called it – spectacular.
Opening the night was Los Angeles-based songstress Julia Holter, whose set consisted of songs from her critically acclaimed sophomore LP, Ekstasis. Along with drummer Corey Fogel and cellist Chris Votek, Holter serenaded the crowd with her lush, baroque-pop-filled tunes. “Our Sorrow” featured hymn-like arrangements and steady rhythm that displayed her classically-trained background, while “Für Felix” and “Marienbad” hypnotized the crowd with her vocal melodies that could be traced back to Asia or the Middle East. Holter acted as a subtle yet illuminating opener for the headlining act.
Promptly at 8:30, the Icelandic collective came out on stage in full force, donning vintage military-esque jackets and a string and brass section. The stage was also decorated on three sides with projection screens, emphasizing heavily on the visual aspect of the experience. Whether it was the images on the screens or the silhouettes emanating from the band members, it was definitely a visual spectacle as much as it was a musical spectacle.
It would be difficult to breakdown this review by each song they played and might take away from the experience as a whole. Rather, it would be appropriate to describe the set as whole to best of my ability. For two full hours, Sigur Rós astonished the entire crowd and not one minute was wasted. Jónsi didn’t take time between songs to engage in banter; it was song after song after song. In moments of silence during songs such as “Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása,” the band would stand still as if their own music removed them reality. And in conjunction, the crowd looked up, holding their breath and waiting in anticipation of when the next note will be played.
Assuming that no one in the crowd knew the Vonlenska language, there were no lyrics to sing along to. Instead, Jónsi’s vocals came off as a surreal and beautiful instrument that he was playing along with his guitar. His beautiful, pitch perfect falsetto soared above into the night sky while the crowd looked up in awe. There was one chilling moment during “Svefn-g-englar” where he sang the hook into his guitar and reverberated that sound through the speakers, giving that effect of distance. It demonstrated that his voice has that ability to travel through any object and have it still sound graceful and heart-wrenching.
Note for note, the crowd was right there along with the band. Whether it was moving to the delicate piano melodies, head banging to Orri Dýrason’s thunderous rhythms, or following Jónsi’s bow as he strummed his guitar with elegance, the crowd was without a doubt entranced by haunting and ethereal sounds shimmering from the stage in front of them. Watching Sigur Rós live is like reading a fantasy novel: it takes you on an otherworldly experience that’s full of magical journeys and surprises.