In 1999, the Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros released its breakthrough second record, “Agaetis Byrjun,” introducing the world to its distinct take on atmospheric songcraft. At times, the band’s trademarks — minimalist composition, frontman Jonsi Birgisson’s ethereal falsetto, lyrics written in an invented language — could create music that felt almost otherworldly. But after 13 years, several albums and a handful of side projects, the approach that once made Sigur Ros seem so alien has now become boilerplate.
Without the element of surprise, the choice for any band, no matter how original, comes down to varying its formula or risking music that can feel complacent and predictable. On its latest album, “Valtari,” Sigur Ros has largely chosen to keep running in place.
For a band that ostensibly harbors avant-garde ambitions, “Valtari” can sound awfully conventional. The opening track, “Eg Anda,” is lovely in its way but fundamentally reminiscent of a great deal of major-key synth rock: a re-imagining of “The Joshua Tree” without attention to lyrics or theme.
Even at its most esoteric, the band sounds a little too familiar. Album closer “Fjogur Piano” could be an outtake from Brian Eno’s 1978 masterpiece, “Music for Airports,” while the nearly eight-minute-long “Ekki Mukk” sounds a bit too much like Jeff Buckley’s “Corpus Christi Carol” for comfort.
This is not a bad Sigur Ros record, but it is not an adventurous one. Ultimately the band’s commitment to pleasant but forgettable ambient soundscapes represents a sort of Rorschach test for listeners. One person’s transcendent experience is another’s somnambulant snooze. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it’s hard not to wonder what might happen if Sigur Ros really shook things up.
“Fjogur Piano,” “Varuo”