et me quote you an excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship Of The Ring book: "It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish of sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain."
Such a passage is as clear an explanation as to what listening to Sigur Ros' Agaetis Byrjun is like. This Icelandic band, and this record, in particular, have accumulated a mountain of hype and hyperbole that dwarves Mt. Everest in comparison. But for once, we have an album that is deserving of it.
Enveloping yourself in Agaetis Byrjun is akin to lying in a snowy field on a blustery winter night, while an unquenchable fire smoulders within you. It is the sound of morning mist creeping through lush ivy; of glaciers coming to life and stretching their limbs for the first time in eons. You do not just listen to this album - you experience it.
I don't often buy into the hype machine, but all the lavish praise garnered by Sigur Ros is but a meek whisper when held up against the music itself. Agaetis Byrjun is an album that is equally classical and contemporary; sorrowful and exuberant; slumbering and rousing. It has all the resplendent majesty of a Beethoven symphony, condensed (sort of) into easily digestible morsels of sonic passion.
Agaetis Byrjun is an album seemingly birthed in a vacuum. I can sit here and name-drop every band that's walked the earth, but Agaetis Byrjun disregards them as so many straw houses. There is no singular album that has come before it that sounds quite like it, and I highly doubt there will be in the future, even by Sigur Ros themselves.
From the underwater volcanic eruption of "Svefn-G-Englar" to the numbing headspace of "Avalon," Sigur Ros present a microcosm of Beauty itself within every song, or should I say, "suite." They push the sonic and temporal boundaries of their music with each cut, often resulting in 10 minute-plus constructs, but never over-indulging in pretentious self-glorification. This group of souls is crafting music to mold universes to, but never let on that they know this to be so.
The basic elements of the Sigur Ros sound are remarkably simple. Lead singer Jon Thor Birgisson intones in a falsetto that could make a pre-pubescent choirboy weep, employing a mixture of Icelandic and English speech, dubbed "Hopelandic." Keyboards of all manner, bass, spartan drums and guitars (both electric and acoustic) are all there. For the most part, Birgisson, who also plays guitar, utilizes the acoustic end of the spectrum, filling in the ethereal, wispy songs with a rustic, organic touch. When the electric is used, it's played with a violin bow, which results in a sound I'm sure we could use to communicate with whales.
The songs themselves are rather simple on paper, highly melodic and flowing, but not bloated prog beasts. Simple formula, but the magic lies in the way Sigur Ros approaches their music, playing each note as if that one second of noise could enchant someone to fall in love; feel the memory of lost friends and family; reach out and scrape fingers with God.
"Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa," with its lilting strings that weave through the song like strands of silken hair, and elegant piano measures that underpin all else, is the sound of a thousand funeral processions, only through the viewpoint of the deceased, safely nestled up in their pillowy cloud in Heaven. While the piano sends veins of ice up your spinal cord, the string sections and slide guitar emanate waves of heat directly afterwards, sending you reeling into the deepest blue.
If Tolkien's hobbits and elves truly did exist (and in Sigur Ros' world, I'm sure they do), then "Olsen Olsen" would be their national anthem, as it builds from a cyclic acoustic guitar riff and the violin bowed guitar coupled with Birgisson's voice, which glides along like a firefly in the cool night air. As "Olsen Olsen" grows in tempo and length, lyrical flute flourishes are added, along with a steady backbeat, culminating in nothing less than the sound of the very heavens themselves opening up, releasing a host of angels upon the earthly plane.
Agaetis Byrjun is filled with moments such as those. When Sigur Ros isn't showing us the outer reaches of our universe, they're turning us inward, with delicate and fragile grace. Tracks such as "Agaetis Byrjun" and "Staralfur" feel like the gentle caress of a pixie wing on your head, perhaps providing the soundtrack for the embryonic alien that adorns the album's cover.
If you translate Agaetis Byrjun into English, it means "a good start." A more humble sentiment of understatement I've never heard. Agaetis Byrjun is not just a beginning, but presents us with a bold middle and end - an entire career within the confines of one album. If this group of musicians never pick up an instrument again, a hundred years from now we'll still be singing the praises of this album, and wishing that everything in life could taste this sweet.
Reviewed by: Keith Gwillim
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01