It is the first of August, 2012. Sigur Ros are playing at Echo Beach. This glorified sandpit on the outskirts of a disused amusement park is an unlikely place to experience transcendent beauty. Scattered across the harbourfront are the worn-out husks of lesser bands. They came to bring the noise and instead were slaughtered by the heartbreaking apathy of Lake Ontario. But not these boys. They know their secret is perfect and immutable. Any place that they play instantly becomes a holy place. They carry their own temple around with them on their world tours.
The crowd meanders through the maze of white ramps and hotdog stands. People blink too quickly and rub their eyes and wipe their brows on their beach towels. The air is humid and smells of cotton candy and fish. We settle down on a low stone wall, behind the mass of lawn chairs, next to the almighty beer stand.
The opening act settles in inauspiciously, wandering through a shimmering forest of electric piano and trembling vocals. It’s lovely, but every song seems to be cut short, prematurely falling before it has had a chance to reach escape velocity. A cover of “Helpless” plays to the old Canadians in the crowd; the other fifty percent don’t recognize the tune.
Darkness descends and the sense of anticipation swells. The crowd blossoms from a ragged beach gathering into a swarming mass of hipsters and hippies, mirror images of each other separated by fifty years of history. The videos show a ghost ship dancing above the water, and the light reflects off of the sunglasses and beer cans of the waiting humans. Wordless singing seeps into the air, permeating the molecules with thin electric spikes. The sawing of violins, pianos softly tracing shadows across the keyboard, disembodied voices swathed in reverb overlapping and levitating into the night sky. The moment hangs frozen as the music coalesces around the singer; at last we hear his inhuman, angelic voice, laid naked under muted stars.
The set is a glorious trip through their boldest symphonies, new and old. Some members of the audience are overwhelmed and begin kissing and crying. Others lay on the ground, eyes closed, or staring up at the stars. Bowed guitars slice through the reverie, bringing darkness and ugliness to shatter the moments strung together like pearls. But it is an illusion, a touch of grit to polish the beauty into the highest sheen possible, like sandpaper. The swaying and reverie of the audience turns my thoughts to my lover, who sits beside me absorbing the ceremony and making new friends. “They’re like an orchestra that’s found a way to escape the concert hall”, she says, and it is the most apt description I have ever heard. To bring together thousands for the purpose of hearing true beauty, raw and abstracted, divorced from all human agenda and impervious to the vexations of the world, is a miraculous act. There is a sense of religion, of worship. The pollution of this city and the suffocating heat disappear; now there is only sound, aching and immortal.
The climax comes with a torrent of white noise and flashing white lights. The band exit, and wait patiently for a few minutes off-stage for their perfectly executed re-emergence. They have more to give us, and they launch their spacecraft one more time. This time, they leave us up there in zero-gravity, suspended above the earth, clutching onto the vapor trail in vain. You can’t contain a shadow this beautiful. It has to escape. And in that escape lays their power: they move us all, but we cannot say why.
We walk away, soaking in the river of time and watching the moment pass slowly, like a massive ship through the harbor. We breathe a silent thanks to the travelling band. The muted stars blink a thousand times per second overhead, their frequency matching the music that is still radiating outward.