Review Summary: 1999 Sigur Ros broke down doors we didn’t even really know existed, and in the vast expanse that is the landscape of music, that is a truly revolutionary accomplishment. "An alright start" indeed...
Music can cover a wide spectrum of thoughts, ideals, and emotions, become more than mere sounds fluttering in open space, and more than the dashes and lines upon a score. Music can affect people the world over, and universally become more than anything tangibly describable. Music can speak without saying anything, and be felt without actually being physical. This is what makes the idea, the presence that is music such a wonderfully part of life, and why some pieces can transcend language, social, and cultural barriers. To this reviewer, Ágætis byrjun
is one such work.
, an album understandable to few, and in some cases, only one, can still be felt by anyone, simply on the basis of how it presents itself. It feels accidental, really, as if Sigur Ros somehow stumbled upon these
notes and these
sounds, all converging into what is found on the album. In this sense, it feels wholly organic, and in some instances, like a living, breathing work. It turns post-rock conventions on their heads, and warps them into what Sigur Ros see fit, which in this case, is undeniably gorgeous. And “gorgeous” is what this album truly has in spades, and is oddly what detracts from everything else at hand. You see, Ágætis byrjun
is more than just a picturesque image of “pretty” and “beautiful,” but rather, a maelstrom of many different kinds of sounds.
At the time of it’s release, the album didn’t exactly make waves. Hell, it barely made ripples. Two years removed from their debut album, Von
, Sigur Ros were still an unknown act, bordering on the fringe of breakthrough and fading into obscurity. Hailing from Iceland, a miniscule, cold, island nation miles away from any bustling mainland, Sigur Ros didn’t quite have the necessary tools to make an impression on the international scene. Hand-gluing the cases themselves (much to the behest of those receiving copies destroyed by said glue), and playing wherever they possibly could, Sigur Ros were just barely getting by. Thus, Ágætis byrjun
floated about for some months until some impressive radio play helped boost record sales. With the internet at this time becoming a hotbed for musical discovery, the album found its way into blogs and websites, and eventually into international success.
marked an immense change in the band’s sound, as it largely did away with the electro-dream pop influences, and embraced cold, ethereal ambience and lush post-rock sounds capes. Jonsi Birgisson found is voice, and the band behind him found the inspiration to create something profound. The album took almost a year to record, and it’s easy to see why. The record seemingly is filled with infinite layers, coalescing into something more than the sum of its parts. Strings, percussion, and Jonsi’s signature falsetto mix perfectly, and the time it took to make it perfect clearly shows, as Ágætis byrjun
rarely, if ever, dips in quality. The album feels more “raw” in comparison to the band’s other works, with the production making everything far less polished than on ( )
. The vocals aren’t as silky smooth, and the transitions between falsetto and normal singing are less than seamless. Instead of pure tone, the rushing of breath can be heard in the various brass instruments used. These small imperfections actually add indelible amounts of charm to the record, giving character and beauty to minor blemishes and imperfections.
Every piece on the record is wonderful, and the thought and inspiration in each one is felt. Everything from the minimal “Intro,” to the lush, ambient “Avalon” gives the record a sense of “completeness,” as nothing sounds contrived or out of place. “Svefn-G-Englar” offers the album’s first true piece. The song opens with echoing feedback and bold ambience, which quickly gives way to Jonsi’s delicate falsetto. Deep, reverberating bass gives a solid foundation to the twinkling sounds and light percussion that gives the vocals some weight. About six minutes in, the song loses its composure for but a few seconds, with Jonsi giving a light holler, until everything glides back down again, slowly fading away into static. The intro to “Starálfur” displays the heavy usage of strings on the album. Cello and violin give the song an incredible amount of poise and elegance. Jonsi refrains from going into his falsetto range, giving the piece a much more down to earth feel. This builds and builds until the four minute mark, where things die down. This calm lasts briefly, however, as a maddening mixture of strings and brass create one of the most memorable moments on the entire record. “Flugufrelsarrin” is one of the darker tracks on the album. Relying more on textured ambiance and Jonsi’s voice, rather than melodies and bright instrumentation. Overall, one of the weaker tracks.
Yet it is “Ny Batteri” that marks a significant shift in the album. The song is powerful, and more so than any of the tracks before it. Sigur Ros utilize subtlety and suspense for about the first five minutes, which gives way to an wailing Jonsi and bombastic horn and string section. It’s brash, and more over-the-top than that of anything else on the album, but the unrefined nature makes for an intense piece of music. “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” follows, and sadly does little to live up to the standard that “Ny Batteri” set. It’s the album’s strangest track, with a bebop-y keyboard and harmonica giving way to a subdued Jonsi singing more diminished than ever. However, the track’s density gives a rather incredible sense of atmosphere, which goes a long way in making the track rather enjoyable. "Viðrar vel til loftárása" follows this with the album's most beautiful piece. There's more emphasis on instrumentation than any other song, and the tremolo filled climax is sublime. Strings and guitar collapse on themselves, with anguished violins and cellos falling out of sync, giving the end of the track a very "desperate" feel.
“Olsen Olsen,” despite the excellence displayed by each track thus far, is an entirely different kind of beast. Encompassing everything that Sigur Ros is, the track sails smoothly, yet hits hard. A distantly heard Jonsi sings over top the simple guitar strumming of Kjartan Sveinsson’s guitar, while multi-layered vocals enter in to give the track a great sense of depth and roundness. Little violin flourishes add a nice touch as well. The piano enters in, and the track climaxes into the album’s most incredible moment. The banging of keys, the blaring trumpet, the glissando of the trombone, and the immaculate choir create an intensely beautiful and captivating musical segment. The title track, and final proper song (translated as “An alright start,” ironically) end things on a wonderful note. The piano, guitar, and Jonsi’s falsetto lead the rather mild song, as it simply glides along unassumingly. It’s a fitting finale really, as the relaxing and gorgeous track give way to the dense ambient outro, “Avalon.”
For all of the hyperbole thrown at this album, it still remains indescribable. It sounds other worldly, while seeming so beautiful and so natural. It represents a standard, and one the band really have yet to duplicate, yet somehow, it’s impossible to think that they really ever will. After all, Ágætis byrjun
feels more like it fit perfectly where it belonged, quietly helping to define a decade of music, and inspire those who’ve truly embraced it.