Iceland’s Sigur Rós have stated plainly their intent to “change music forever, and the way people think about music.” And with their second proper album, Ágætis Byrjun, they seem to be making good on their promise.
Nothing you’ve ever heard before can prepare you for what’s contained in this sprawling collection of tracks. Sigur Rós have been dubbed “post-rock” but that’s not really fair. Their music sounds as though it’s existed since some time around the dawn of civilization while at once sounding completely new and unsullied by all this cinderblock modernity.
Vocalist Jónsi Birgisson sounds like something ethereal – or perhaps like something sprung from the tender beginnings of the blue-inked angelic fetus that bizarrely graces the album’s cover. And his lyrics are as often sung in his invented language, Hopelandish, as they are in any real tongue. All of this lends the music a sense of deeply religious fervour, an almost ceremonial elegance and solemnity.
The music here is rich, lush, and intentional, while maintaining the sparse simplicity of a sun-washed hillside or a glacier’s path. And in its epic runtime (over an hour) and its demand to be heard in full, Ágætis Byrjun is something of an anomaly in an increasingly singles-driven digital decade.
A cathedral organ gives way to white noise and chamber-music string orchestrations. Somewhere an acoustic guitar plunks clumsily and a horn section sounds the dawn. Birgisson often draws a cello bow across his guitar strings, and the drums are as often played with brushes as they are pounded and tape-looped like booted feet across a frozen tundra.
The album opens with the sonar pings and tranquil liquidity of the subtly noisy Svefn-G-Englar, whose heartbeat ending is as close to a gradual passing from one world to the next as one could hope for. From there, the album careens and cascades through a scattershot portrait a world we’ve never known.
Staralfur is lush in its string orchestration. Flugufrelsarinn features some devastatingly beautiful bowed guitar by Birgisson. The jubilation that comes toward the end of ny Batteri is unexpected and surprisingly heartbreaking. The opening measures of Hjartao Hamast seem genuinely out of place, sounding a bit like a Fender Rhodes and harmonica outtake from some lost Led Zeppelin session. Olsen Olsen drifts into solidity like a dream colliding with the waking world, and and the album closer, Avalon, seems to usher in the new century from a hillside ceremony.
Ágætis Byrjun is an album that demands to be played loudly, outdoors, and in moments of quiet introspection. Upon first hearing it, I thought I might never need to listen to another album ever again. So engrossing is the spell with which Sigur Rós work, so powerful is the scope of their vision, that post-rock or not, they’ve certainly created a sort of music unlike any that’s been made before.