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Definitive Albums: Sigur Rós 'Ágætis Byrjun' (1999)

A Good Beginning

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Sigur Rós 'Ágætis Byrjun'

Sigur Rós 'Ágætis Byrjun'

Smekkleysa

It's All Hopelandish

It's hard to recapture the sense of what it was like discovering Sigur Rós at the turn of the millennium. Long before they became failsafe soundtrack placements, summer festival staples, and a shorthand for any music that was big, beautiful, and over-the-top, Sigur Rós were a band from Iceland with no back-story, whose members were unknown quantities, and whose existence itself seemed like kind of a mystery.

There were obvious musical references —they were beloved by Radiohead to the point where the Englishmen admitted they'd influenced them; and they sounded like obvious descendants of Cocteau Twins— but that didn't help to actually explain who this band was, and how they'd come to make music so ridiculously sincere at the end of a decade defined by its love of irony.

There was little information known about Sigur Rós; their preceding singles didn't have any technical credits, and interviews were non-existent. I remember reading a review of their Sven-G-Englar EP that spoke of the "female vocals." The inability to 'know' this band was writ in their music: gender-bending singer Jón Þór Birgisson (who'd yet to become known by the iconic singular Jónsi) caroled choirboy whalesongs in Icelandic and gibberish; the latter turning out to be 'Hopelandish,' a made-up tongue styled on Elizabeth Fraser's evocative glossolalia on Cocteau Twins LPs. The inscrutability of Sigur Rós should've been a detriment, but instead it became the key to their unlikely crossover.

A Sustained Crescendo

The narrative seems strange, still, now, but at the time it was shocking: a band of atmospheric dream-poppers, with ambitions that were grandly artistic but never commercial, become a huge global success by way of 10-minute bliss-outs sung in languages (or non-languages) other than English. But if the scope of that success was unexpected, Sigur Rós were still part of —or perhaps the culmination of— the rise of the post-rock movement.

Though hailing from another world away —if not another world— Sigur Rós could easily be conceived as contemporaries of Godspeed You Black Emperor!. Each band were chasing after utter grandeur, marshaling huge walls of sound into almighty crescendos, violin bows furiously sawing at agitato electric guitars as they soundtracked the movies of their dreams. But each band was, at the core, philosophically different: Godspeed! born of punk-rock and staunch DIY culture, an agit-prop co-op who wore their reactionist politics on their album sleeves; Sigur Rós were far more flamboyant and theatrical, forsaking politics in favor of fantasy escapism, their tinkly-fairy-lights-in-the-Elfin-forest sound almost playing as musical Tolkeinism.

The imaginary soundtrack pieces on Ágætis Byrjun —their first album to be released outside of Iceland, and a subsequent huge international breakout— are big and bold and beautiful to excess; ably able to summon magical imaginary vistas in audiences. "Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása" is a sticky symphonic concoction with sweeps of dangling slide-guitar swiped from the Paris, Texas soundtrack. "Svefn-g-englar" hovers across a vast landscape in slow-motion, Birgisson's singing ringing out vast. "Ný batterí" builds up towards one of those huge post-rock climaxes, all smashed drums and scrawled guitars and droned brass. And "Olsen Olsen" employs woodwinds and strings and a choir, cresting with such bravura that it almost feels like a national anthem.

These aren't songs that are self-effacing or reserved, that hold back, that harbor any irony, that underplay anything. Sigur Rós may've arrived arrived as mysterious, almost unknowable, but their music was big and confident and demanded to be loved; seemed built for stadiums —or, at least, opera houses— from the beginning. Their subsequent ascension into indie-rock heavy-hitters has been both surprising and not at all; Ágætis Byrjun's title (which means "a good start") suggesting more was to come.

Record Label: Smekkleysa
Release Date: June, 1999

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