Saturday, February 6, 2010

More Iceland - Sigur Rós and Ágætis Byrjun

Since mentioning Sigur Rós yesterday, a terrible sense of guilt and unease has descended on me. They are an amazing band and they produce amazing music, and hardly any of my friends have heard of them, let alone heard them, and I haven’t blogged about their music and things won’t be right between the world and me until I do. So, at the risk of being accused of being Icelandcentric, I have decided today to give some attention here to their 1999 album Ágætis Byrjun.

I suspect that this is music that, even without knowing anything about it or about its creators, you would be likely to think has come somewhere from Scandinavia. It seems to conjure up images of huge, cold spaces, fjords and long half-lit days, ice and volcanoes and mists.

But while Ágætis Byrjun is richly ambient, it avoids any temptation to become complacent about its own good looks. Its pulse and texture can change unexpectedly, and sometimes moments of incandescent beauty are interrupted by jarring ugliness, like moments in 'Starálfur' where you feel you are treading through smooth snow, to gloriously singing strings, but every now and then the tonality collapses, the flow falls to pieces, and you feel you have stepped on broken glass.

Sigur Rós call on a lot of different resources in creating and performing their music. Its vocals are mostly male falsetto, there are soaring strings, some sparing use of electronic noise, traditional acoustics, all mixed and remixed with and on top of each other, sometimes creating an eerily freaky soundworld, as in ‘Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)’, sometimes a vast, endless sea of tears, as in 'Viðrar vel til loftárása', with its cold piano opening, its lonely strings, its sadly sliding steel guitar, and its unearthly vocals, crying from another world, but then eventually exploding into a gorgeous sunrise of sound, where the music’s passion swirls and radiates around you, turning itself into a frenzy before suddenly dying out without even a whimper.

Nothing on this album ever does what you expect it to – its ambience is always on the edge, never allowing you to rest in it too much, or for too long, because always you feel that it’s going to shoot off in some strange, completely unanticipated direction, like the suddenly skipping beat, with cheesy vocals and bright trumpets, that breaks into the gentle sway of ‘Olsen Olsen’, eventually fading away and leaving a solo piccolo tripping off into the distance

The album closes with the elegiac and barren ‘Avalon’, with rich harmonies, dark and soft, from strings and brass, breaking away into nothing but a few lonely, lingering sounds, like wood cracking.

Ágætis Byrjun, rich in sound, rich in invention, is actually Sigur Rós’s second album, but its title more or less means “A good start” and many of the band’s followers see this as the real beginning of their musical journey – a bold and beautiful step into the world of post-rock ambience, and one that even these endlessly explorative artists have arguably never trumped.

Iceland might not be too crash hot at managing an economy – but they certainly know how to produce good music.


  1. Incredible band - there is also a new icelandic post rock/jazz scene getting big at the moment

  2. Thanks Simon- I would certaionly be interested in continuing to follo up some of what is emerging from Iceland now.