Does Jónsi ever wish his voice weren’t so pretty? While he’s never made the same album twice, either as a solo artist or a collaborator or the frontman of Sigur Rós, he’s also never made an album that turned out anything other than exquisitely beautiful, no matter how much he’s fought against it. Sigur Rós responded to their international breakthrough by going full-on hauntology with ( ), but if the movie syncs were any indication, they were still seen as friendly ghosts. They made an album whose title translated to “steamroller,” but the music itself consumed the listener like a bubble bath. Even beyond the legal and interpersonal turmoil, the past decade has been inhospitable to Sigur Rós’ creative process—if Jónsi expressed his anger towards a world of “climate change, doom-scrolling and going to hell” on a Sigur Rós album, as he does here, would their English-speaking audience even be able to tell? ÁTTA proves that Sigur Rós are physically capable of making angry music—but they aim for the softer, more poignant variants: despair, depression, and dejection.

Three months earlier, Sigur Rós announced an upcoming tour with a 41-piece orchestra—a perfectly sensible endeavor if they were still engaging in the brand stewardship that took up much of the past decade. It turns out that they were tipping their hand in the direction of ÁTTA. The introductory “Glóð” misleads with its electronic crackle and backmasked vocals, suggesting a continuation of the purely textural work of Valtari or Riceboy Sleeps. And since ÁTTA is almost entirely absent of guitars and percussion—their disgraced former drummer has not been replaced—it’s likely to be described as “ambient.”

But throughout, Sigur Rós make the distinction between ambient and classical for people who might not otherwise listen to either of these forms. This is minimal music often performed maximally; without access to the frothy distortion and cymbal clatter that typically brought Sigur Rós songs to a crescendo, the strings on “Skel” slowly accrue a concussive force that draws as much attention to the mixing as Jónsi’s vocal dynamics. He dips into his lower register often throughout ÁTTA and allows himself to rise triumphantly alongside even the loudest orchestral blares, performing like a first-chair soloist more than the frontman of a rock band.

Advance copies of ÁTTA were delivered as a single 56-minute track, a strong suggestion that its narrow range of tempo and texture is an intentional choice and that its optimal listening experience replicates what most people probably expect of a 41-piece orchestra: fully seated, no bathroom breaks, withholding the temptation to seek a moment worthy of a standing ovation until it’s done. (The official release is split into 10 tracks like any other Sigur Rós album.) Regardless of its more refined presentation, this is not an album of passages or movements or suites. It’s best understood and appreciated as a collection of songs, of which there are clear highlights.

“Klettur” might be the most conventional display of heft on ÁTTA, but it’s also the most satisfying, the only establishment of continuity from their previous album of original material, 2013’s underappreciated Kveikur. After 15 minutes of somber swells, it emerges from a shivering riff that could conceivably be bowed on Jónsi’s guitar as a crowd-pleasing reward for their patience. The other track to feature any kind of percussion ( an understated, pulsing kick drum in both cases), “Gold” is in the mold of “Avalon” or “Untitled 8,” but recast as windswept folk sung by the last man on earth. As much as “Klettur” and “Gold” supply immediate pleasures, they also call the overall concept into question—are they payoffs for their sedate surroundings or just glimpses of an album where Sigur Rós makes more daring use of an orchestra while working outside of rock’s strictures? While ÁTTA is always engaging, it’s engaging through a familiarity that feels like a missed opportunity during the stretches where the London Symphony Orchestra mostly sounds like they’ve been tasked with playing Ágætis byrjun stems.

Still, even Sigur Rós seem to admit that ÁTTA is intended as a multimedia experience. Though “cinematic” has been the default tag for Sigur Rós’ music on its own, they’ve long relied upon visuals to get the point across. Witness lead single “Blóðberg,” whose title alone encompasses their tendency to spring forth in beauty—it’s a wild thyme plant native to Iceland whose name translates to the way more badass “blood stone.” On its own terms, it’s one of Sigur Rós’ most desolate arrangements, but the despair is recognizable; without the anchor of any low end, Jónsi sighs and howls as the strings surge and recede. The video extends “Blóðberg” to a full 10 minutes of little more than drone shots of a barren wasteland—either desert or tundra—where twisted mannequin remains are indistinguishable from gnarled branches.

It’s not surprising that Jónsi has noted climate crisis as a primary prompt for ÁTTA’s nihilism; it’s also hardly coincidental that Sigur Rós teamed up with Johan Renck, a director best known for his work on the Chernobyl miniseries, even if the landscape might actually be on loan from Renck’s current project, a lunar sci-fi drama starring Adam Sandler. If “Blóðberg” is any indication, Jónsi has carefully assessed our impending environmental apocalypse as inevitable and a matter of incremental decline rather than an extinction-level event more suited for the climax of “Ný Batterí.” Even given its inspiration, ÁTTA never feels dishonest in its expression or its ambition to provide Hopelandic for hopeless times.

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Sigur Rós: Átta