There have been many admiring glances cast already at the EIF’s newly constituted contemporary music programme which, seemingly at a stroke, has given popular music validation at a festival which has traditionally overlooked its mongrel charms.
Of course, there is popular music and there is popular music. Two of the most mythologised names on the bill – Iceland’s Sigur Ros and Canadian collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor – are not going to be challenging Drake in the singles charts any time soon, yet they are respected – even ardently adored – around the world to such a degree that they can comfortably hold their own in one of the bigger spaces at a prestigious international arts festival.
Both bands formed in the mid-1990s and came to prominence later that decade with their experimental, elemental symphonic rock soundscapes, which soon began to crop up as incidental music on television and film soundtracks. Both are enigmatic outfits who swathe their shows in films and projections rather than succumb to any traditional notion of a rock’n’roll performance, and both quickly graduated from playing unusual gig locations – deserted industrial spaces, warehouses, bunkers, art galleries – to the concert halls of the world.
Of the two, Reykjavik quartet-turned-trio Sigur Ros make the more accessible sound, which is why even those unfamiliar with the group will likely have heard their music everywhere from BBC idents to Hollywood blockbusters to sports coverage or seen their Game of Thrones cameo, as King Joffrey’s unappreciated wedding band.
Over the years, their evocative music has invited many flowery comparisons to Iceland’s volcanic landscape even though, for the most part, their early string-soaked maelstroms have settled down into more conventional pop structures.
Frontman Jonsi Birgisson’s fragile falsetto vocals remain a key feature. He was stretching language long before his countrywoman Bjork began singing in tongues, using strings of non-literal sounds, dubbed Hopelandic, in much the same impressionistic, ethereal way as Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, another shy trio who have shunned the limelight and, in so doing, acquired a mystique they never sought in the first place.
While their music has become ubiquitous, even established, Sigur Ros have kept a low but productive profile, releasing a steady (glacial) stream of their own albums, alongside collaborative work with esteemed choreographers Wayne McGregor and Merce Cunningham.
It is a dance piece which brings Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Edinburgh. When Vancouver contemporary dance company The Holy Body Tattoo first performed the rigorous monumental in 2005, Godspeed were on an extended hiatus so the company writhed to recordings of their dystopian post-rock. Now, the (literally) shadowy nine-piece (check out those blurry band photos) are providing the soundtrack live, as well as playing their own concert.
Godspeed are straight-shooters in many ways but their path to respect and recognition is far from conventional. Emerging from the Montreal squat scene, their first recording – a cassette album limited to 33 copies – could hardly be more cult, but its follow-up F♯ A♯ ∞ caused an unexpected stir with its quiet storm of doomy, distorted disenchantment.
However, the group shunned the media, preferring to communicate uncensored as one voice through their provocative sleeve-notes, occasional public statements and anti-rock gigs, including an early show at Edinburgh’s Stills Gallery where they blew the speakers with their apocalyptic volume.
The collective went dark for much of the 2000s but have reactivated over the past five years, taking much the same anti-establishment approach to a wider audience. Godspeed have always expressed disenfranchisement, but now their sonic howl of protest chimes with the volatile times more than ever.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Playhouse, 10 August, 8pm; Sigur Ros, Playhouse, 15-16 August, 8pm. Godspeed also perform live as part of Monumental.