Sigur Rós – Route One (XL Recordings, 2018)

route one

Whilst it has a few names depending on where you are in the country, the main road that runs Iceland’s perimeter is known as Route 1. It is a lifeline, a circumferential artery that connects the principle townships along the country’s coast, an asphalt nerve that crosses rivers and sandurs and fjords to unite the thin population centers outside its capital.

In 2008 I had the pleasure of seeing much of its course on a school trip, snaking down the long way from northern Akureyri back to Reykjavik, and just recently I returned with friends and put in a few miles on it again. It’s a mesmerising experience every time: all sense of scale seems to disappear here, dramatic walls of rock rising out of unassuming ground, each bend unveiling some new vista and visual drama. Weather changes from instant to instant, the ground undulates in frequently barren nakedness,  huge stretches can go by without seeing another car and longer without seeing a house. The one constant is that seamless stretch of road, the string that connects all the surprises together.

Route One is a gathering of instants from across a “slow TV” experience, a 24 hour live stream on the Summer solstice in 2016 that took viewers on a trip around the country, accompanied by Sigur Rós’ generative music. The approach is perfect: the music plays itself, an organic unfolding of drones and vocal coos and guitar bendings and glitch strafes that paint a rolling feeling onto the ears as the wheels turn beneath. The eyes drink it in, in all its visual drama and beauty, but the sound taps into the essence of place.

Take interior track 5, “64º46’34.1”N 14º02’55.8′” for example: a lonely stretch of road in the NE, a span across a broad fjord sandwiched by the imposing drama of the valley sides. It hums and echoes, lost to quietude as it peers down both the throat of the valley and out to the becalmed ocean it crosses, deep emanations arriving in the guitar like the guttural, structural, magmatic heart of this paradoxical place.

You can contrast this with the likes of the third track “64º02’44.1”N 16º10’48.5′”, a sonic motif that repeats several times across the livestream for the longer watchers (for example the drive through Hveragardi). It wiggles and oscillates in electronic idiosyncrasy, cyclical tones bobbing amidst more spectral airs. Although the title zones in on the glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon, this “theme” can be heard passing through a few towns on the journey, as though demarcating points of interest or perhaps places with the greatest concentration of people. Its hollow atmosphere feels tantalisingly political, the road breaking the precious isolation of these unspoiled places.

Yet there is love and life to be shared, and whilst the luxurious drones of other pieces (tracks 2 and 6) bathe in the stoic glow of this hard but beautiful place, closing “65º38’27.9”N 20º16’56.9”W” unloads its syllabic vocal fragments suspended in floaty atmospherics. It heaves and croons and whispers, each pulse a flare of life passing like the lights of a distance house or a brief encounter with car headlights flicking by on the shared road. Despite the distances, the difficulties of the landscape, the remoteness and the sparsity of people, Iceland is a unified country: it’s inhabitants the beating heart and blood, the road its veins.

If you could plug your headphones into a place, turn your car into an antenna to the resonant frequency of its surroundings as you drive through, Route One would be as close to what you would hear.