Sigur Ros
Agætis byrjun



by Xenophanes EMERITUS
April 20th, 2011 | 623 replies

Release Date: 1999 | Tracklist

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.

Ágætis byrjun, 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.

Ágætis byrjun 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 ( ) and Takk…. 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.

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br3ad_man EMERITUS (4)

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Comments:Add a Comment 
Contributing Reviewer
April 20th 2011


this is long
you're lucky you're generally a great writer or else i would never read all of this
here we go

Digging: Trh - Novej kalhnjnnp

April 20th 2011


Never though I would hit 100. Thanks sputnik, you've been great.

No Xeno, thank YOU. Not only have you steadily climbed up the great sputnik ladder of quality to become one of the site's best and most active writers, but I think that you are also a great person. I hope that there are still lots of reviews to come, and I that you get that well-deserved contributor title very soon.

Oh and by the way: this review is so great, I actually read it twice because of the sheer awesomeness. Pos (as if there ever was a doubt about that).

April 20th 2011


Wow Xeno, you really knocked it outta the park with number 100.
That being said, congratulations on making it to the big 100 buddy

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 3.0

Only Sigur Ros Album I don't particularly adore...

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 5.0

Grats on 100! review is stellar - pos.

Glad to see this album finally get a proper 5 review. The first time I heard Svefn-g-englar I felt like a small child, wrapped in the comfort and weight of the world.

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

Congratulations Xeno, pos'd.

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

Awesome review. The way you describe it being natural/organic but other-worldly at the same time is pretty how much exactly how I feel about At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command, so I can relate.

I need to hear this album, too. ( ) is the only Sigur Ros release I've heard in its entirety. Sounds like I'm missing out a bit, haha.

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 5.0

Excellent review for such a cornerstone. Grats bro

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 3.0

Dude..totally missed that.

Happy 100 man!

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 5.0

this album : )

April 20th 2011


congrats on 100!

April 20th 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

Congrats on 100, Xeno. You're one of my favorite reviewers on this site.

Keep up the great work! I'm seeing you as a contributor in the near future.

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

Mes plus sincères félicitations, Xeno. Mammoth review for the francophone I am haha. I'll read it later.

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 5.0

my jaw literally dropped when i saw you'd chosen this as your 100th, stellar review. congrats, man. the qualit and consistency of your writing is definitely something sputnik should be thanking you for (in title form, soon we hope)

but uh... i think this is one of the greatest albums of all-time. i don't even want to say that subjectively. 5 years later after my 13-year old self fell in love with this i still can't find a sliver of a thing wrong with it.

April 21st 2011


Congrats X-Man! :D

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

pretty much their best album

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

Congrats man! Review is fantastic

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 4.5

never really been able to get into this. haven't listened in quite some time though, happy 100th!

April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 2.5

Awesome review and congrats on the 100th. I've been meaning to check these guys out and you've definitely inspired me to.


April 21st 2011


Album Rating: 3.5

You've written too many reviews. Neg.

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