Sigur Rós – Ágætis byrjun (1999, Fat Cat/Smekkleysa)

Post-rock, as it is called, is a kind of alternative rock that contains harmonies, melodies, instrumentation, and rhythms that are completely different than what everyone’s definition of rock music is. Whereas there are many bands working in the genre, even some who don’t consider themselves to be part of the said genre at all, one of the most successful is Sigur Rós. I had found Sigur Rós almost by accident. Searching around for electronic music, I had come across their 2005 album, “Takk…”, and found the song “Hoppípolla” to be one of the most beautiful songs I had ever come across. It defied any of my attempts at trying to describe it, because it pretty much speaks for itself.  Jonsi’s falsetto vocals, the lovely piano parts, and the stunning brass and string orchestration took my breath away at the first listen. Since then, I have continually seen their work in popular culture, from “Untitled #4 (Njósnavélin)” being shown in the ending of the film “Vanilla Sky”, to “Hoppípolla” being played in a Disney:Nature trailer. Also, as they become more mainstream, so did their music, becoming more pop-oriented and catchy. However, we must never forget that there was a time when they would play slowly, for seemingly hours on end, and always keeping the listener interested. “Ágætis byrjun” is the album that propelled them into the mainstream. It didn’t happen immediately, but by 2001, word of mouth had spread greatly, and it was claimed by many people as one of the greatest albums of its time. Needless to say, for as popular as they became off “Ágætis byrjun”, nothing sounds remotely close to mainstream music. It is an album that requires attention and patience, and if you choose to do so, you will be rewarded with an experience that is unlike any other.

The ambient “Intro” is simply a backmasked version of the title track, and it’s a happy medley, but nothing compares to the next track, “Svefn-G-Englar”. The backmasked vocals in the beginning, the slow-moving bass and organ/vibe melody, light jazz-like drumming, and Jonsi’s ever-popular bowed guitar start the track, and the result is like a dream. Slow-moving, beautiful, and deep to a point that you never want to wake up. No wonder then that Cameron Crowe would later feature this track in his film, “Vanilla Sky”, given the film’s themes of dreams and such. Jonsi’s falsetto vocals are beautiful as ever, in that they never interfere with the ambience of the track, but simply add to it like they were just another instrument. The climax that occurs 6 minutes in is short but huge, with a wall of sound that is reminiscent of the shoegaze era, perhaps Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. The song ends softly, but never fully, as ambient noises and digital kick drums make their way at the end, only to further lead you down the rabbit hole.

“Starálfur” begins with a huge string orchestra and Jonsi’s vocals, making a beautiful, fairy tale-like combination, with strange ambient noises slowly coming in and out of the mix. All of this leads to an even more lush and emotional climax two-and-a-half minutes in, as the harmonies here are utterly stunning. A short guitar riff makes its way in, before a rush of noise leads you back into the strings, along with a tribal drum beat that helps to keep the song going. At one point, the whole classical sound of the track reminded me of The Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby”, only if it didn’t sound so compressed and intense, because here, the strings are soft and delicate, rarely interfering with the beauty of the track. More strange electronic noises end out the track before leading straight into “Flugufrelsarinn”, which begins with a melancholic, Celtic-like melody, before going into soft drums and lush reverberated ambience, which is filled most of all with the haunting sounds of the bowed guitar. Jonsi’s vocals yet again are beautiful, though here, they sound almost like an Icelandic version of Thom Yorke. Very soft, but with a feeling of power behind them. The climax is yet again something beautiful, with some traits of strings and guitar present, and a large wall of sound.

“Ný batterí” starts with the haunting sounds of either real or synthesized horns (it’s hard to tell which exactly), before evolving later into a rhodes and guitar/bass riff. The atmosphere yet again is melancholic and almost mournful, as Jonsi sings in a saddened-like voice. 5 minutes into the track, the drums are harder and louder than any of the previous tracks, perhaps connecting to the elements of modern rock music, and later on, almost dissonant and jazz/blues-like horns are played to add to the chaos (I’m starting to think that perhaps this song had an influence on Radiohead’s “The National Anthem”). “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” is a surprising departure from most of the album, because though strings, bowed guitar, Jonsi’s haunting vocals, and a lot of ambience can still be heard, jazz/blues-like piano lines and even some harmonica are also present. The song also ends with some of the loudest and most distorted noises I’ve ever heard. “Viðrar vel til loftárása” begins with some creepy ambient noises before segueing into a nice piano melody, good guitar harmonies, and a deep bass. Strings yet again enter the mix, creating a cinematic feel, and there’s even some slide guitar that makes this already beautiful song sound like a post-rock country tune (heck, could we call it post-country?). Finally, Jonsi’s voice and some light drumming make their way in, and the song becomes yet another beautiful track on the album, perhaps even right up there with “Svefn-G-Englar”. The climax, however, is in the last two minutes, where huge, spacious swells of bowed guitar, loud drumming, and strings combine to create feelings that are impossible to describe, before becoming more and more dissonant, in which it suddenly cuts off.

“Olsen Olsen” begins with the harmonies of Jonsi’s voice and more light drumming. Melodic bass lines are also played here, similar to what Mogwai was doing with “Tracy” on their 1997 debut album, “Young Team”. Yet again, more lush orchestration is provided by string instruments, and even this time, there is a flute or penny-whistle solo in the break, as well as at the end of the track. It is very uplifting and folk-sounding, and personally, this is as close as the album gets to being anywhere remotely conventional, because though there is folk and classical influences, and the sound is mostly ambient and atmospheric, during the second half, the song is very reminiscent of most of the indie folk rock bands that were doing their own thing at the time this album was made. So, most listeners won’t have a hard time listening to this track. “Ágætis byrjun”, the title track, is even more conventional and straightforward, being a slow and emotionally heartbreaking rock song filled with great guitar riffs, keyboard melodies, soft drumming, and Jonsi’s vocals. The song overall is breathtakingly beautiful for as simple as it is. The final song, “Avalon”, which is also one of the shortest tracks on the album (excluding the minute-and-a-half long “Intro”), starts with ambient strings, horns, and keyboards, and the harmonies and ambience almost sounds closer to something that would be played in a huge cathedral. Later on, some presence of bass and strange sounds are present as well. It is simply an ambient outro of sorts that contains no vocals, but in its own right is melancholic and beautiful, and really ends the album quite well.

Overall, “Ágætis byrjun” is simply Sigur Rós’s best album to date, and perhaps one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded to tape. Though it is mostly ambient and most of the tracks range from 6 to 10 minutes in length, it never drones on and always keeps the listener interested with its ethereal soundscapes. At times sad and melancholic, and other times happy and uplifting, Sigur Rós manages to capture a huge array of emotions through their unique instrumentation and orchestration. It is simply unlike any other album that has been put out before it, and will stand the test of time, in that many may try to recreate the sound of “Ágætis byrjun”, but in the end, it will never be equaled. Sigur Rós are masters at what they do, and if you are looking for an album that will get you into Sigur Rós, “Ágætis byrjun” is the perfect album to start out with. Highly recommended listening.

Album: Ágætis byrjun

Artist: Sigur Rós

Genre: Post-Rock/Ambient

Released in 1999 by Fat Cat Records/Smekkleysa Records

Available now at all major retailers!

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