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Sigur Rós
Ágætis Byrjun
PIAS America/Fat Cat Records/Bad Taste

I feel a bit silly reviewing this record, released in its home country two full years ago. Itís just not hip for a music critic to sound off on a hot musical phenomenon so long after its nascence. I admit it. Iím a Johnny-come-lately to the Sigur Rós world. Iíll attempt to atone.

Some ridiculous hyperboles surround Icelandís Sigur Rós, that countryís most remarkable export since, well, their last one. In typical British style, a writer for the venerable New Music Express compared their sound to "God weeping tears of gold in heaven." Lars Ulrich, Metallica drummer, Napster basher, and fellow noisy Scandinavian, reportedly wrote a letter to Sigur Rós, thanking them for inspiring him after a show at San Franciscoís Fillmore Theater. The band can count as fans most of Americaís and Britainís musical cognoscenti, including luminaries like David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and David Byrne.

If youíve come in late, youíre probably wondering what all the fuss is about. And if youíve ever paid any attention to the music hype machine before, youíre probably skeptical about the whole thing.

I, too, was skeptical. How could such a young band from such a small country cause such a stir? And without so much as a bleached buzz cut or a homophobic rant? And then, I listened. Ágætis Byrjun made a believer out of me, and Iím convinced it will do the same for you, fellow latecomer.

While it may not sound like God weeping tears of any sort of precious metal in an extraterrestrial paradise, there is certainly something profoundly moving about Ágætis Byrjun. It is simultaneously transcendent and grounded, both angelic and deeply human. This music has as much in common with Spiritualized and EVOL-era Sonic Youth as with Nick Cave and Tortoise. Even Mozart might have dug the dark religiosity of Sigur Rós. Many critics have chosen to lump the band into the stoner space rock tradition established by bands like Spacemen 3, but Sigur Rós are not taking drugs to make music to take drugs to. They are making music to engage, to transport, and to bring heaven down to earth.

The music of Sigur Rós is beautiful and unusual. Roughly strummed acoustic guitars interrupt the ecstasies of a full orchestra. Blips, thumps, and Brechtian punch-ins punctuate layers of chime-like guitar feedback. Singer Jón þor Birgissonís (say "yeown thor birgissun") ghostly voice floats over bowed electric guitar melodies. Pop music conventions are employed in new and interesting ways. Where an average band might bring in a snare drum or stomp the distortion pedal around the one-minute mark of a four-minute song, Sigur Rós does it around the four-minute mark of a nine-minute song. In fact, pressed to choose just one word to describe the music of Sigur Rós, I would pick "patient". There is absolutely nothing about this band or their music that is hurried.

For a fabulous introduction to the sound of Sigur Rós, check out "Svefn-g-englar", the transcendent and engaging single (the title can be roughly translated as "Sleepwalkers", though the word "englar" refers to angels). Soaring falsetto vocals and whirling orchestrations make this piece an excellent initiation into the Sigur Rós cult.

"Flugufrelsarinn" ("The Fly Freer") is perhaps the most conventionally structured song on the record. You may even catch yourself singing along to this one, sure you understand just what heís going on about. Jónsiís voice is so vulnerable, so expressive, so emotive that the semiotics fools you into thinking you know what heís saying, even though he may be singing in either Icelandic or in his own invented language, Hopelandic (thatís right).

For a stunning, cinematic instrumental, check out "Viđrar Vel Til Loftárása" ("Good Weather for Air Strikes"). This gem consists mostly of a simple, eight-bar progression that allows for orchestral improvisation and may remind the listener of a Radiohead composition. When the vocals begin after five minutes of this (yep, not actually an instrumental at all, but they had you fooled), Jónsi seems to be in the middle of a phrase, as if the vocal track had been there all along, but someone just bumped the slider to turn them up in the mix.

If you havenít heard Sigur Rós yet, let me just tell you that you donít get it. Youíll read a bunch of reviews, with comparisons like the ones Iíve made here, and even more (Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Air, Mogwai, Slowdive, and on and on), but you wonít get it until you hear it. And when you hear it, youíll know. Youíll know that your other recent musical purchases are going to collect dust for a bit while you attempt to absorb this one. Youíll know that Icelanders must be the coolest people in the world. Youíll know that there really is still such a thing as truly great music. Youíll just know.

Youíll hear it, and youíll know.

ó Eryc Eyl

Track Listing:

  1. unlisted intro
  2. Svefn-g-englar
  3. Starálfur
  4. Flugufrelsarinn
  5. Ný Batterí
  6. Hjartađ Hamast (bamm bamm bamm)
  7. Viđrar Vel Til Loftárása
  8. Olsen Olsen
  9. Ágætis Byrjun
  10. Avalon

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