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REVIEW: Sigur Ròs: Ágætis Byrjun
5.18.2001 by Sean

Sigur Ròs: Ágætis Byrjun (Fatcat, 2000)

Three or four months ago, the Web was agog with rumours that Sigur Ròs, those four crazy amigos from Iceland, were the subjects of a massive bidding war among American record labels. We know now that MCA won the battle, and now carry exclusive rights for the band's North-American releases.

Now, upon hearing this factoid, most people would assume that Sigur Ròs is some neato rock band, who, à la At The Drive In, hit big at SXSW, and whom studio execs predict will hit the Rock Top 40 in a big way.

Well, most people are wrong.

Sigur Ròs is, to use the most bland and generic of pigeonholes, a "post-rock" band. Yeah, post-rock. As in Tortoise. As in Mogwai. As in Godspeed You Black Emperor!

So they're a (mostly) instrumental group that plays either jazz fusion, noise rock sonatas, or minimalist arpeggio builds?

Well... no.

Ágætis Byrjun has got lyrics. Lots of them. They just happen to be in Icelandic. Well... most are in Icelandic. The rest are in 'Hopelandic', a made-up language that's part gibberish and part Icelandic. Not that I can notice the difference.

And are they minimalist 'sound compositions'? Not really. The album's full of real songs. 'Olsen Olsen' actually has a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. There are choral sing-along finales.

And yet...

And yet, Sigur Ròs is not rock'n'roll. It is, it might be said, something that comes after rock. A more evolved life-form. It's post-rock of the truest kind. It kicks rock's ass.

Okay, but what does it sound like?

Pitchfork Media says that "Piano, flutes, tremolo, horns, feedback, and that godly amazing voice scrubs souls pure with the black volcanic sands from the beaches of Vík". Splendid thinks "If Heaven had a house band, it would most certainly be Sigur Ros."

Okay, but what does it sound like?

Well, it's got horns. It's got violins. It's got electric guitars, and one, especially, that's played with a bow. The drums drift from be-bop beat to war chant. Lead vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson croons his words like the elven love-child of Bjork and Thom Yorke. His voice is so high-pitched that it sounds female, is so infused with emotion that it sounds literally heavenly.

Ágætis Byrjun begins underwater. In one long swoop upwards, you rise through the blue-green of the ocean. Voices surround you, densely packed - as if the labyrinthe murmurings of Radiohead's 'Everything in Its Right Place' had been condensed into twenty seconds. Then - woosh - you are on the surface, deep in mist, a distant shrill foghorn (okay, so it's contradictory) calling over the hum of feedback.

Riiiight, you're saying. But what does it sound like?

I wish I could give you a good idea. But.. I don't know, it's hard. The music is so fucking evocative, with its glacial undertones and heraldic fanfares. The emotion springs from each note, the melodies and harmonies singing out landscapes, letting me speak in nothing but metaphor.

Sigur Ròs sounds like Heifitz playing over 'Penny Lane'-era Beatles, with Radiohead's pet orchestra, and, atop, well... Jon Thor Birgisson singing.

I decided to review Ágætis Byrjun this week because it just got its major release in the USA and Canada. A few months ago, while it was still a tiny indie release, I had to phone Montreal's little record stores every three of four days, for a few weeks, to get a hold of mine - and that was only after running to Cheap Thrills so that it would not be sold before my arrival.

They're currently in studio, working on a follow-up to this (their 1999) album. I wait on baited breath. In the mean time, don't bother listening to their older stuff (they've got another full album, a dumb film soundtrack, and a disc of remixes) -- Ágætis Byrjun kicks its ass and will, frankly, kick your ass.

I'm also well aware that this review was lame. But if it did nothing more than incite you to boot up Gnutella, or Hotline, or whatever the heck you use, and download a track for a taste, my work is done. I recommend 'Svefn-G-Englar and 'Ný Batterí'. :)

As for me, I'm going to open the window, turn up the music, and listen to the storm.

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