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Anthony Carew

From the Vaults Friday: Sigur Rós, Ágćtis Byrjun (1999)

By November 30, 2012

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The Year: 1999
The Album: Sigur Rós, Ágćtis Byrjun
Who it Influenced: Bobby, I Break Horses, Glass Vaults, Exitmusic, Radiohead, Coldplay

They came from Iceland, but they sounded like they came from another world. If not by space ship, then by tall ship; sails billowing in the breeze. They were post-rockers from the frozen far north; from the world's most recent landmass, all volcanic tempestuousness and harsh elements, populated by pagan peoples whose beliefs include the presence of unseen elven creatures.

Sigur Rós arrived, with their second album Ágćtis Byrjun —their first to be issued outside of Iceland— as if some magical form of musical Tolkeinism; providing fantasy escapism for a swelling legion of nerdy followers. Their music was its own grand saga: all 8-minute compositions across a 70 minute LP; all agitato guitars and orchestral swells; all wordless whalesong wails from their unknowable, gender-blurring singer.

At the time, as Sigur Rós went from strange cult act to bona fide commercial success, their ascent seemed so strange as to be inexplicable: how could this band singing in another language, with nary a pop-song to their name nor a single second of commercial radio-play, be shilling their music to millions?

In hindsight, it seems obvious: Sigur Rós made huge, vast, ambitious, excessive, over-the-top music or ridiculous, unabashed beauty. Their stated ambition, on Ágćtis Byrjun's release, was to "change the world." Selling hundreds of thousands of CDs wasn't the surprise; the fact that Sigur Rós existed at all was.

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