On Sunday, as the baking sun sits idly in the sky, its heated rays of light descending down onto the earth to cook everything in sight, thousands of Londoners (myself and my family included) descend upon Vicky Park for what promises to be a very special one-off show by possibly my favourite band of all time, the post-rock behemoths Sigur Rós. I haven’t seen Sigur Rós since 2013, when I became a bit of a stalker and followed their tour from Manchester to London (seeing them three times that week), so I’m incredibly excited to finally watch them again. Coupled with the fact that the UK finally seems to be getting something close to summer, everything appears to be coming together nicely.
Citadel has been running in Victoria Park for two years, bookended onto the Sunday after Lovebox festival. It’s a nice set-up, the vibe a lot more chilled out and family-orientated when we arrive. Various food carts line the entire edge of the festival, offering anything from curried goat to grilled cheese sandwiches. We head first to the comedy tent, as a close friend of mine, Bilal Zafar, is performing there.
Bilal has been performing standup for the last four years or so, recently winning the NATYS 2016 award (formerly the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year, also won by comedy heavyweights such as Stewart Lee) and is heading to Edinburgh this August to perform his show Cakes (about purposefully being mistaken by the extreme far right as the owner of a Muslim-only cake shop in Bristol on Twitter). I’ve seen snippets of the show before, having lived with him during our uni time together, so it’s always a pleasure to be able to catch up and see how far he’s progressed. And that would still be the case, had we maybe arrived 20 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, as soon as we get to the tent the MC is introducing the next act. It’s a shame, but with a few full-hour preview shows coming up towards the end of July, I’m sure I’ll catch him then. (And you should too. You like laughing right? RIGHT? Oh, you don’t? Oh, apologies sir, please go and frown somewhere else in that case.)
Instead, we grab a drink and explore the festival before the next band, Battles, take to the stage. Citadel is a bit of a strange one, only on for one day and featuring lots of different bands and performances from poetry to comedy, but there are also few people I have actually heard of. Maybe it’s me being ignorant, but the main stage features most of the bands I am familiar with. Still, it’s enjoyable to just walk around drinking (although not at £6.50 for a bottle of not quite cold enough cider) and take it all in, which I assume is the main point of the festival.
I meet with a friend of mine, Ama, and we head into the Big Top tent together to catch Battles. I’ve heard of Battles, but never actually heard them, while Ama is quite a big fan. He gives me a little backstory for them (they used to have a singer who then went on to do his own solo work, taking his voice and previous recordings with him, leaving them a three piece who now use samples and guest singers on their songs. They also live sample and loop their music on stage as they play, which I found quite impressive) before shooting off to the photographers’ pit to grab some photos.
For a three-piece band, Battles can make a lot of noise. Opening with ‘Dot Com’, the crowd are immediately receptive: heads start to bop and shoulders start to twist. I’m incredulous to see just how high drummer John Stanier’s cymbal is (check the photo below, it’s crazy) but somehow he gets it every time, a look of painful enjoyment on his face.
It’s not long before they’re all drenched in sweat, but they each seem to be having the best time. Guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams (who has all his keyboards facing down and away from him – what is it with the odd instrument angles and this band?) aims and fires his guitar more like a gun that an instrument of sound, his awkward dance moves working surprisingly well, while guitarist/bassist Dan Konopka controls the crowd with his brief but witty dialogue. As I don’t really know the songs I’m hearing, it’s a bit tough to get fully into the music, however when they begin to play the song ‘Atlas’, one that I finally know, I’m bopping and finger-wiggling like the best of them.
We exit the big top tent drenched in a layer of sweat, despite not actually having moved that much during the performance. The sun is truly beating down now, even with it being six in the afternoon. It’s time for another drink and another slow wander back to the main stage for electronic heroes Caribou. On the way I lose count of the actual number of food vans, it’s truly staggering how many they’ve managed to fit inside Vicky Park.
On our way we also pass two separate stages each teaching the crowds around them how to dance. One is line-dancing, one is swing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to dance and having a good time, by all means go ahead, but swing dancing is the worst kind of dance you can do and the worst kind of music you can listen to and anything associated with it should only be reserved for morons (the line dancing is only slightly more acceptable because everyone loves a good do-si-do once in a while). Despite my rant, people do seem to be having a jolly time and who was I to deny them that? I’ll just scornfully write about it later as I sit alone in my hot room, full of unnecessary rage. Ha yes! That’ll show them. Jury’s still out on that one.
Finally, we reach the main stage just as Caribou walk out. Dressed in their custom all-white jeans and tees, Dan Snaith leads the band into an extended set (almost an hour and twenty minutes). Snaith has an odd ability to turn even the shortest Caribou song into a 15-minute epic, and it can occasionally let the songs feel a little bloated and over-stretched. I like Caribou, I like him a lot, but I’m basing that on the songs I’ve actually heard. His latest album, Our Love, was completely enjoyable and a highlight of 2015, however there isn’t much here for me to sink my teeth into. I think the fact that we’re standing quite far back (being a bit late the area in front of the stage is rammed) and not fully immersed doesn’t help, but as soon as the opening squiggly notes of ‘Odessa’ blast out, the whole crowd is up on their feet and boogieing away.
To give them credit, they sound great even from this far away, the crowd directly in front of the stage flinging their arms in the air and clearly having the best time. They follow this song with ‘Can’t Do Without You’ from their latest album, which again gets everyone in dancing spirits. Their final song, ‘Sun’, is a perfect fit to the end of their set as the afternoon sun warms us all.
The last time I saw Sigur Rós at Brixton Academy, the band took the stage behind a huge white sheet, with only their projected shadows visible for the first few songs, before it dropped dramatically to the floor to reveal all three members (vocalist and guitarist Jónsi, drummer Orri Páll Dýrason and bassist Georg Hólm) and a full band with them; strings and brass and backing singers. It was truly a magnificent spectacle and the sound was completely on point, each of their songs, old and new, sounding terrific. For this performance however, and I’d been expecting/worrying about this, they have scaled right back to just the original three members.
Sticking with the same shy opening theme, they first all appear in the centre of the stage, a drum pad in between them. They almost look like three holy leaders gathered at the altar, ready to deliver their sermon to a hungry devoted following. The open with new song ‘Óveður’, which has bursts of electronica and a soaring distorted midsection. The bowed guitar hasn’t made an appearance yet, but Jónsi’s voice is as strong and calming as ever, carrying over the swell of beats radiating from the other members. As that song finishes, my hopes are high for the rest of the set.
The band take to their usual positions, bassist Georg to our left, Jónsi in the center, Orri on our right, his drum kit facing the rest of the band rather than outward. As the opening strings (pre-recorded) and piano notes (played live by Orri) of ‘Starálfur’ float out over the crowd a huge screen behind the band bursts into life, bathing the crowd in light and moving images. In front of this screen are several towers of lights, erected to look almost like a giant spider hanging down over the band. These lights correspond to the screen at the back and the two screens at the side in perfect unison; obviously the band have put a lot of work into this display and the results are incredible. At one point the members of the band are broadcast on the screens but made up of a series of interconnecting lights, like a beautiful neon LCD dot-to-dot.
The band are here to play the hits, with fan favourites ‘Sæglópur’ and ‘Glósóli’ (possibly my favorite Sigur Rós song of all time) following and drawing huge cheers from the band. After these two songs, things take a bit of weird turn in the crowd around me. A girl a few rows in front of us faints and begins to have a fit; a woman moves in front of me wearing the most ridiculous pair of velvet rabbit ears (you can imagine how angry it made me just to type that out), obscuring my view of the band; a random stranger turns around and tries to initiate a conversation with me about the band WHILE THEY’RE PLAYING LIKE COME ON DUDE WHAT ARE YOU THINKING I’M NOT HERE TO CHAT TO YOU CAN YOU DO ONE YOU CRETIN. Also a large crowd of very loud and rude people behind us are bellowed at by an angry Scottish man to SHUT THE FUCK UP (my sentiments exactly but I’m glad for once I wasn’t the only one getting annoyed). If it was any other band I would’ve been furious, luckily this is Sigur Rós, so my nerves were calmed.
‘Vaka’ is next, one of the songs from the beautiful album ( ) and also one of the songs sang in ‘Hopelandic’, the made-up language Jónsi used to record the whole album, like a version of Nordic jazz scatting. It’s a really nice addition to their set. Fan fave ‘Festival’ (also used at the end of the film 127 Hours to beautiful effect) is played with Jónsi showing the full power of his voice by stretching out the last note into what feels like minutes and minutes before the rest of the band kick in and we’re treated to a sonic wall of noise crashing into us, the lights from the screen and LCD towers illuminating the crowd in the dark of the East London night.
After a few more songs, including ‘Kveikur’ from 2013’s album of the same name, the band finish on the hugely powerful and immense ‘Popplagið’. After the initial build-up the band break down into huge noise, Georg smacking his bass strings with a drum stick, Jónsi smashing his cello bow onto his guitar, the lights from the screen completely breaking down to match, a series of intercutting broken images complementing the noise perfectly. I feel a shiver run up my spine despite it being an incredibly warm night. The noise continues for what feels like hours until it eventually submerges into the silent night.
The band leave the stage and return for a huge ovation and applause, culminating with the audience throwing the Icelandic football chant of “OOH, OOH” in a lovely touch of respect. It’s the perfect end to another perfect set from Sigur Rós, and I’m already looking forward to what they’ll conjure up for their next performance.
Words: Alex Platt
Photos: Ama Chana