By Allyson Bills
Sigur Rós is no stranger to recording film scores. he Icelandic band has recorded two film scores since their formation in 1994: one for 2000’s Angels of the Universe and the other for 2002’s unreleased Odin’s Raven Magic. Now, Sigur Rós can add a third score to their resume: Circe, for the BBC’s Four Storyteller Series “The Show of Shows,” a documentary chronicling one hundred years’ footage of circus, vaudeville and carnivals. Circe is slated to be televised in 2016.
Two-thirds of Sigur Rós consisting of the non-Jónsi members with bassist Georg Holm and drummer Orri Páll Dýrason collaborated with touring guitarist Kjartan Holm (Georg’s brother), composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, and South Iceland Chamber Choir to record this score. Circe was recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland, and released on their imprint label Krunk. The result of Circe is a dramatic, eerie seventy-two minute instrumental album, which is a departure from Sigur Rós’ poppy overtones.
It’s interesting that Circe is being released a year before the airing of “The Show of Shows” because you have to watch it in order to understand the music. For this reason, the lack of visual media made it difficult to review Circe at points in this album.
Circe begins with “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls,” also known as the ringmaster’s opening lines to a circus. This airy track is a typical Sigur Rós song with the slow piano start and drum beats, and a string instrument ending from the South Iceland Chamber Choir. The circus introduction to the music is played out slow, appearing to warm up up the audience of the upcoming action.
The crowd is warmed up on Circe’s second track, “Lila,” an even-tempoed, bass-heavy track which a video premiered on Stereogum. In the video, “Lila” depicts various vaudeville acts with the fast drum beats synonymous with the dancing and twirling of the women who were performing. The craziest part of the video that “Lila” captured was one of the vaudeville dancers balancing a balloon with her teeth all to the tune of the string instruments in the background. Steely pedal effects is the theme for the next track on Circe, “Hyperbole,” which captures the exaggeration of art imitated into art perfectly with this slow, distorted track in order to prolong this feeling of imagination.
“Torture,” is accurate to its namesake with K. Holm’s guitars set in center stage to string instruments in the background. Like “Hyperbole,” “Torture” is a stagnant track, which may be controversial, the possibly well-know torture of animals in this realm of the entertainment world. “Torture” blends right into Circe’s fifth track “The Eternal Feminine,” which the latter term derives from the Goeth’s “Drama Faust” of (women’s) beauty, truth, good and love. This was a popular term in the 19th century in order to marginalize women in the context of the public sphere, which was dominated by men at the time. Believe it or not, the circus was the only realm in which both men and women were able to share the public sphere. “The Eternal Feminine” captures the dichotomy of the sexes in the public sphere with the light pianos in the beginning to represent the woman, and then about 1:20 into the 5:29 minute track, it turns into a dark (representing the men) increase in tempo. The men assert their dominance for the rest of this track with the pedal effects and roaring, strong drums. “The Eternal Feminine” is the most interesting track off Circe because, based on listening to the album, it’s the only one that both sexes are conglomerated into one song.
The darkness continues into “The Crown of Creation,” with the drum circles being the focal point of this track, demonstrating what appears to the men’s dominance in the public sphere. “TKO,” known in boxing circles as “technical knockout.” This track, if you have been to or seen any circus footage on the Internet, depicts a kangaroo boxing with a human. “TKO” is an atmospheric track combined with harmonies and string instruments exaggerating a boxing match in slow motion, like something like you would see in the movies.
The one track off Circe that I don’t understand why it’s included on album is “Filaphilia (A Tribute to Siggi Armann)” because it appears it has nothing do with these acts based on an audio and track name. Armann was a compatriot of Sigur Rós who opened on their 2002 tour before his death in 2010. It’s random and stuck in the middle of Circe. Then again, I would have to watch the documentary in its entirety to understand the reason why “Filaphilia (A Tribute to Siggi Armann)” was included on this album.
“To Boris With Love” is the theme song on the “The Show of Shows” trailer, which the name of the track appears to be loosely based on the late Mr. Wiseman’s children’s book “Boris At The Circus.” In this book, Boris the Bear takes Morris the Moose to the circus and they become part of action. “To Boris With Love” makes the listener feel they are a part of the circus with the heavy, distorted, metal-ish track with the harmonies and drums building up in the background. I felt a part of the action myself by being sucked into the trailer and wanting to further explore “The Show of Shows”.
“Liquid Bread & Circuses,” a phrase used by the Romans of the two things that people desire the most, and synonymous with mindless self-gratification. This slow track, with the distortion and heavy bass gives the listener a sense of euphoria to enjoy their circus viewing, and to forget about its harsh realities. “Salire” (meaning to jump from one horse to another) is a funky tune with prioritizing the drum section of the orchestra. “Breakfast In The Himalayas” is a continuation of “Liquid Bread & Circuses,” but lighter in tone. The stagnant track gives the British the opportunity to enjoy their bio-dynamic, organic fair trade black tea from India. "Wirewalker,” lives up to its namesake with the the upbeat drum section resembling the tightrope wires of the circus performers.
Circe ends with appropriately-titled “Epilogue,” a slower atmospheric track that with pulsating violins to summarize all the acts of the circus, carnivals and vaudevilles. The 5:14 minute track fades in the end without notice, nothing the conclusion of “The Show of Shows.”
I would recommend to buy Circe when “The Show of Shows” is aired, because this way you’ll understand the context in which these songs were created. Also, I wouldn’t consider this to be a Sigur Rós release per se, BUT more like a side project. For those Sigur Rós fans who like music darker in tone, then Circe is for you.