Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sigur Ros - Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Remembering the breakthrough album by the Icelandic Superstars 

Its no secret that Iceland’s post-rock ensemble Sigur Rós have inspired from the music media some of the most effusive praise in recent memory. Melody Maker gushed “they sound like God weeping tears of gold in heaven,” Rolling Stone called their second album Agætis Byrjun “a magical hour of shimmering melancholy,” and self-anointed indie oracle Pitchfork, (in one of their characteristic self-important rants) fulsomely called them “the first vital band of the 21st century,” praising their “chrome swirls of tinnitus,” and “that godly amazing voice [that] scrubs souls pure with the black volcanic sands from the beaches of Vík.”

What has compelled these ordinarily dour critics to bend themselves into awkward linguistic knots lavishing superlatives on this band? One reason could be that in Sigur Rós’ lushly orchestrated, emotionally wrenching epics you can hear all the many reaching threads of post-rock experimentation being woven, for the first time, into a tapestry into which they all fit with stunning elegance. They may be the first band to make a post-rock record in which every minute works, a post-rock record which, though it’s nothing resembling “poppy,” you can almost imagine being a breakthrough, genre-defining hit. The fact that the group has become superstars in their homeland and beyond only makes them - and Iceland (a country, by the way whose imagined landscape of snowy plains and mossy verdure is impossible not to picture while listening to this group) - more endearing.

The other probable reason for all these critical laurels is that 1999's Agætis Byrjun is one of those records that sounds almost magical. The band’s omnivorous instrumental palette and its mix of grand gestures (like a full orchestra and choir) with intimate ones (like close-miked unplugged electric guitar and singer Jón Thór Birgusson’s breathy falsetto) makes for a record so beautifully otherworldly that, at times, it’s almost difficult to believe the music is coming to you from without and not from within.

Agætis Byrjun is one of those records, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, whose scope of ambition is only exceeded by its realization of that ambition; here is an incurably arty record of icy, ambient epics, sung mainly in a fake language, Hopelandish, made up by the lead singer - and it’s amazing. Also like Astral Weeks and In the Aeroplane…, Agætis Byrjun is possessed of an emotionally expansive, deeply compassionate feeling, a moving magnanimity that you don’t need fluency in Birgusson’s private language, or any language, to instinctively grasp.

It’s very, very rare that a record so transcends critics’ descriptive powers that it leaves them helplessly fumbling for words and wallowing in strained hyperbole, but maybe this points towards what the most evocative, visionary music is supposed to do: leave speechless.


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