Behind the Majestic Sound of Sigur Rós and Their Made-Up Language, Vonlenska

Sigur Ros

Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós craft one of the most strikingly unique sounds in the world. Its a swelling blend of orchestral grandiosity, tranquil cinematic lulls, and frontman Jónsi’s piercing falsetto. This is all heralded by perhaps their most unique trademark, that many of their vocals are sung in a made-up language created by the band members themselves, deemed “Vonlenska”. In English, this translates to “Hopelandic”. Sigur Rós show that classic authors like J. R. R. Tolkien aren’t the only ones capable of creating fantasy languages with compelling linguistics, and infusing it into their art. While Sigur Rós may not be as linguistically ambitious as Tolkien, who created over 20 languages each with unique vocabulary and grammar, they are one of the only musical equivalents. That one of their albums relies solely on an eleven-syllable lyrical phrase shows that.

The entirety of Sigur Rós’ 2002 release ( ) – which the band calls Svigaplatan, translating to “The Bracket Album” – was sung in the aforementioned Hopelandic, and the language’s audible complexity must have been one reason why all eight of its tracks are untitled. The concept of singing gibberish when writing songs is a common one for musicians, who may wish to assemble a vocal melody before considering the lyrical content. Sigur Rós and Jónsi take it to the next level and infuse it into a variety of their works. This comes off with surprising naturalness and cohesion, largely because Sigur Rós’ compositions already resound with a fantastical and almost otherworldly ambiguity. Singing an album in a made-up language is daunting enough, but to sing only one specific phrase – “You xylo. You xylo no fi lo. You so.” – seems crazy. Nonetheless, it works exceedingly well, as it doesn’t matter what Jónsi says. It’s how he says it that’s most important.

The reason for the repeated phrase on ( ) is partly artistic choice, but also because fans had become accustomed to hearing the album’s songs performed live with the Hopelandic fixings. The band had not thought up lyrical additives yet, so the Hopelandic versions were the first – and final – product. But before you jump into Sigur Rós’ discography expecting every album to feature one phrase, it should be emphasized that many of their songs are in a real language, with actual variation. Their native Icelandic features most prominently. Even so, when translated many of these lyrics include descriptive imagery and adverbs, which the syllable-led Hopelandic aims to replicate with a wordless wonder. It does a majestically beautiful job for the most part, especially as it allows the band’s gorgeous compositions and soundscapes to take over. This is their most frequent route, but it’s not always the case. The band even produced a song in English in 2008, with the final track on Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Yup, that’s the album title, and you can expect many lengthy Sigur Rós song titles with similarly daunting linguistics. Their music is anything but the intimidating sort, though. It’s easy to get lost in, especially as Hopelandic steadily becomes a device for hypnotically entrancing repetition.

Even as Sigur Rós are labeled pretentious by some critics who see Hopelandic as little more than a distraction, it’s hard to fault such a unique component to a band’s sound, especially one that does very little to overwhelm what the Icelandic post-rockers do best: create swelling spectacles that tread in both anthemic and ballad territory, ethereal and beautiful no matter what the objective. If this was a band creating bland indie-rock then such criticism might be apt, but as it stands Sigur Rós continue to make a sound that is strikingly gorgeous and entirely unique.

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