Agaetis Byrjun (Bad Taste '00) Rating: A+
If you thought Bjork was strange wait ‘till you get a load of this Icelandic combo. Of course, Bjork first four albums were also pretty wonderful, and so is Ágaetis Byrjun. Quite simply, words such as “otherworldly,” “vast,” “icy,” and “beautiful” were coined to describe music such as this, which sounds unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered. Funereal organ, droning guitars, pretty piano, sweeping strings, and electronic touches (along with occasional horns and woodwinds) combine to produce the band’s trance-inducing sound, which can surge with a majestic power or induce listeners into a lullaby-like dream state. Like Tindersticks or Radiohead, who first touted and then toured with Sigur Rós, Sigur Rós is spectacular instrumentally, but it is the incredible vocal ability of singer Jón Ţór Birgisson that truly propels the band to greatness. Whether singing in English, Icelandic, or his own made up combination of the two called “Hopelandish,” Birgisson’s voice both wails and comforts with an alien sense of wonder and a sublime sadness that comes across clearly even when the words don’t. These nine songs unfold slowly and often move along at a glacial pace, but the albums 72 minutes rarely seem indulgent. At times soulful, ambient, and even folksy but more often than not simply indescribable, Ágaetis Byrjun commands your undivided attention, during which time stands still and nothing else seems to matter. Simply put, this is an instant classic that’s among my all-time favorite albums.
Given that they couldn’t be bothered to give their much anticipated follow up to 2000’s spectacular Ágaetis Byrjun a proper title or even name any of the songs, I think it’s safe to pronounce Sigur Rós the most pretentious band on the planet. Look beyond that, however, and it’s equally apparent that they’re also one of the best, though work is required for a full appreciation of the band’s elegantly grandiose and atmospheric art rock. With Birgisson abandoning real words for his own made up language of Hopelandish (that’s gibberish to you and me), it’s the music that again matters. In fact, his awesome androgynous falsetto can simply be seen as another instrument within the band’s moody musical mix, which also includes trademarks such as mournful string arrangements, bright piano or sad organ, and Birgisson’s otherworldly bowed guitar sound. Each of these eight songs move at their own leisurely pace, and though some sections meander this strategy also allows the music to build up to many brilliant climaxes. Track 1 has an almost classical beauty, and the instrumental track 3 is probably the prettiest song you’ll hear all year. Track 4 is a more straightforward lullaby, and after 30 seconds of silence track 5 begins the albums more “rocking” second side with a funereal-like mood that eventually surges with a majestic intensity. When these guys get it going they sound like they can move mountains (check out tracks 7 and 8, each of which contain some spectacularly intense sections, for further proof), and though you have to sit through a few meandering lulls along the way, the rewards are well worth it. Fact is, although they bear a passing resemblance to bands like Radiohead or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, there’s really no one else who’s quite like this Icelandic combo, who are so original that they can actually change the way you look at music. The band’s uniqueness is primarily because of Birgisson, one of the most enigmatic vocalists I’ve ever heard. Sometimes his high-pitched falsetto is uncomfortably otherworldly, other times so beautifully emotional (and human) I swear I could cry. Not ones to be easily overshadowed, the band’s alternately desolate and overpowering soundscapes provide an equally strange yet suitable match. Sure, there are times when I wish the band would step things up a bit, and ( ) suffers by comparison to Ágaetis Byrjun, in part because second helpings of something so special are rarely as magical as first impressions. Still, I can’t imagine anyone who liked Ágaetis Byrjun not falling under the spell of ( ) as well, for its celestial ebb and flow solidifies the band’s standing as one of the best bands of the new millennium. Of course, now that they’ve again proven that they can make majestic mood music better than anyone else, the challenge for Sigur Rós is to prove that they have something to say.
Then again, lyrics are overrated, at least when it comes to band’s whose music is as magnificent as Sigur Rós. So are things such as diversity; Sigur Rós just do what they do, and they do what they do better than anybody else. Of course, this is because nobody, but nobody, sounds like Sigur Rós, and Takk… is yet another stellar album that’s often inconceivably gorgeous. It’s not quite as great as Ágaetis Byrjun, but given that that album is among the best ever, that’s to be expected, and I'd probably rate this above ( ), which was still stellar but less consistent and more about its stunning peaks. The more sparse, minimalist sound of ( ) has again been fleshed out with orchestrations and even horns a la Ágaetis, and there’s also less Hopelandish as the band attempts a more accessible, at times almost even poppy sound, such as on “Hoppípolla,” which almost sounds like a bid for radio airplay. There’s still nothing quite “normal” about these guys, as these still sound like alien whale songs for the most part, and most of these songs are still extremely long (too long for radio) and take awhile to get going, sometimes too long; this is not an album for you impatient types. Still, even when things get a bit boring these songs always exude a stately elegance, and the band’s quietly beautiful-to-loudly dramatic crescendos can still thrill on songs such as “Glósóli” and “Sćglópur,” even when you can see the payoff coming a mile away. Sure, several of these songs are samey sounding, and I’d be hard pressed to name too many other highlights as the tracks, particularly on side two, tend to blend together after awhile, but again the band’s crystalline, ethereal sound is flat-out spectacular. Just the other night I was listening to this album on my iPod walking my dog Frasier on a clear, starry night, and I felt a sense of awe at how perfectly the grandeur of the music matched the splendor of the night. Some bands are touched by genius, and Sigur Rós are one such band.
Međ suđ í eyrum viđ spilum endalaust
This offering by Sigur Rós is less otherworldly than previous efforts but the band's pure, crystal clear sound is still utterly gorgeous, and the band's embrace of shorter songs and a poppier, more accessible sound is a natural (almost expected) progression. Perhaps the album is slightly less impressive than previous efforts (keeping in mind that I still haven't heard 1997's Von or their 2007 compilation album of previously unreleased songs and live acoustic performances, Hvarf-Heim), since modesty isn't necessarily becoming on them (several songs, especially on side two, merely offer pretty but insubstantial ear candy), but this album has its fair share of highlights and is another easily recommendable effort overall. Certainly the album gets off to a rousing start with first single "Gobbledigook," with its big tribal drums, brisk pace, catchy hand claps, and poppy "la la" harmonies. "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur" continues the high quality with a bright piano groove and another superb melody, while "Góđan daginn" is a heart-meltingly lovely ballad. "Viđ spilum endalaust" is a soaring delight, with propulsive rhythms, blaring horns, and more delectable harmonies, and on the more epic side, "Festival" closes what I guess would've been side one in pre-cd days with the albums centerpiece song. Actually, the first half of it is musically sparse and relies on Birgisson's vocals to carry the day, but the song's second half swells to the type of colorful, majestic climax that the band is known for, with strings and horns lending a helping hand. The other 9-minute track, "Ára bátur," is less successful, in large part because it takes about 7 minutes to really get going, though once it does the song's grand finale is again stirring. Elsewhere, the band strips down their sound; "Illgresi" could almost be called folksy, and "All Alright" is also notable for being the band's first all English track. Another sparse but pretty effort, this song provides a low-key ending to another impressive but comparatively modest collection, as the band's more varied approach at times takes them away from their dreamy, atmospheric strengths, though at their best the band can still move me emotionally like few others.