Agaetis Byrjun (Pias America, 2001)
Key tracks: Svefn-G-Englar, Staralfur, Flugufrelsarinn, Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa, Olsen Olsen
Icelandic lore tells of the Hidden People who live in the crags and lava of jagged mountains. Descended from the ancient guardian spirit, the Hidden People come in many forms. The tiny blómaálfar dwell in flower blossoms while the common búaálfar reside on farms. Even in this modern age of cellphones and helicopters, Icelanders continue to believe that the Hidden People are still out there somewhere. Construction workers even curve roads around rumored dwellings of the Hidden People. How can a modern people find faith in such fantasy? A heavy cloud of Norse mythology and a breathtaking raw landscape explains much of it. The indigenous music of Sigur Rós can only perpetuate such a religion.
The album begins submerged. Sonar pings echo from liquid feedback, invisible in a handful, but crushing you like an ocean in its volume. A cathedral organ moans. Wire brushes drum in a sinking pace. A violin bow saws open the maw of massive guitar, spreading noise in clouds of blood. Siren Jón Thór Birgisson sings through every orifice-- including gills, perhaps-- creating the most inhuman vocals ever heard in rock (though Skywalker Sound could attempt a Chewbacca-esque approximation by blending whales, Jeremy Enigk, cherubs, Björk, and the blue alien from The Fifth Element). The song ends in an accelerating heartbeat that breaks into palpitations. Sound fizzles out. You've died.
A string section waxes as the album moves from "Svefn-G-Englar" to "Starálfur". The chamber instruments flutter around skeletal drums and sepulchral bass. This music tethers to touchstones in classical as much as Radiohead, like Orff composing "Carmina Burana" for e-bow at absolute zero. The song breaks into brittle acoustic interludes where Birgisson's vocals frost through your speaker. Yet like Icarus triumphant, the album keeps taking you higher (or deeper, depending on your perspective).
"Ný Batterí" opens with a disjointed band of muted horns. They deliquesce into chrome swirls of tinnitus and massaging bass. Eventually, the song erupts in flaking layers of hissing drums. Subtle bebop drums and Kjarten Sveinsson's fatty rhodes pianos kick up dust on "Hjartað Hamast" while Birgisson rubs the sleep from his eyes. "Olson Olson" is simply the most soul-crushingly beautiful piece. This elfin masterpiece unveils Mogwai's troll-rock for its soulless academics.
To term this music "post-rock" would be an insult; Sigur Rós are pre-whatever comes this century. Piano, flutes, tremolo, horns, feedback, and that godly amazing voice scrubs souls pure with the black volcanic sands from the beaches of Vík. Birgisson's invented lyrical language of Hopelandish may be crying in tongues or even plain gibberish, but sheer emotions like this cleanse as universally as sodium laureth sulfate.
Sigur Rós make this bombastic claim on their website: "We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don't think we can't do it, we will." The fact that they've scored hits in Iceland with this spectacular orchestrated soul speaks of both their power and the credibility of the natives. The alien angel fetus pressed in blue ink on the cover serves as the perfect logo. Sigur Rós effortlessly make music that is massive, glacial, and sparse. They are Hidden People. Children will be conceived, wrists will be slashed, scars will be healed, and tears will be wrenched by this group. They are the first vital band of the 21st Century.
After an introduction just this side of one of the aforementioned Stone Roses' backward beauties, the album pumps in the morning mist with "Sven-G-Englar" -- a song of such accomplished gorgeousness that one wonders why such a tiny country as Iceland can musically outperform entire continents in just a few short minutes.
Reykjavík-based noise quartet Sigur Rós are the biggest band in their native Iceland, which should say much, much more about the collective insanity of that earthquake-ridden, blizzard-beaten crag of an island than anything to do with Sigur Rós's sound. But in their music, Sigur Rós reflect all the breathtaking glory of the Icelandic wastes--a fairy-tale explosion of unhinged elemental majesty that's finally crystallized here, their debut European release.
Reports suggest that Sigur Ros is from Iceland, but if they ended up being from Pluto, or some far off galaxy, it wouldn't be surprising. Nor would it make any difference. Agaetis Byrjun, a hypnotic siren song of an album, glides in as if delivered by an advanced alien civilization. Warmer and fuller than any of Radiohead's attempts at moody, ambient music, Agaetis Byrjun would suggest the future of music if you actually believed anyone else on earth was talented enough to replicate its unique sound (no one is).
After a beautiful appetizer of an intro, the album goes right into the epic "Svefn-G-Englar" (try saying that 10 times fast), 10 minutes that may as well last a lifetime. It sounds like a submarine maneuvering through a newly discovered celestial body. Relaxing, powerful, and touching all at once, it sets the tone for the rest of what follows. "Staralfur" follows, a track as hopeful as a newborn child's birth. Listening to it is as cathartic as My Bloody Valentine's shimmering wave of feedback from ten years ago. After the demise (or hibernation) of that band, it's wonderful to see a new band trying to bring rock music to an entirely different level.
Scared of the language barrier? Don't be. Like any opera, the emotion comes through regardless of whether or not you can understand the words. From the dazzle of "Svefn-G-Englar" to the Celtic waterfall of "Olsen Olsen," Sigur Ros bursts with feelings of hope, despair, happiness, sadness, and all points in between, perhaps even creating new emotions as they go along. It's an incredible achievement, not likely to be matched by anybody anytime soon. Unless you count the band itself, but they may have moved on to another solar system by then.
Thanks Sigur Ros. First and foremost, thanks for ripping out my heart and soul and then serving it back to me as a musical masterpiece. You've created a breathtaking hour of beauty that makes me giddy with joy. Thanks for completely flooring me with tracks three and four and thanks for the concussion resulting there from. Also thanks for charging me thousands of dollars for your music. Sure, it was only fifteen bucks at best buy, but it made my whole CD collection obsolete. Radiohead no longer has the emotional intensity, Weezer now sounds like a bunch of kids playing with guitars, and Coldplay sounds shallow and poppy in comparison. Thanks for transforming my case full of good music into a case full of expensive coasters. Thanks for making indescribable music that makes me sound ridiculous when I attempt to explain its beauty. How can I tell my friends about some weird Icelandic band and make them understand? And finally, thanks for leading me to a dead-end. Where are my musical tastes to lead me now? How can I ever go back to what I once loved? How will I ever find anything like this ever again? In all liklihood, I won't. And that's what I'm afraid of. So thanks again, Sigur ros. Thanks.