Sigur Ros: Agaetis Byrjun
Mar 3, 2001
AGAETIS BYRJUN, Sigur Ros (Fat Cat)
Iceland seems to be gaining the kind of reputation held by Ireland or Jamaica: a little island producing an unfeasible amount of good music. Agaetis Byrjun, the first international release by Sigur Ros, turned up on enough of the world’s ‘best of 2000’ lists to pique my curiosity; fantastic Icelandic pop from the likes of Gus Gus and Bjork raised hopes of what I might find.
The packaging offers few clues as to its contents – unless, of course, you’re fluent in Icelandic. Even the edition licensed to the English Fat Cat label includes no translations; it took some careful studying before I could distinguish the names of the band members from the Icelandic words for drums, keyboards and guitars. The line drawings of a bizarre winged fetus – the sole graphics on the sleeve – merely deepened the mystery. The only thing to do is let the music talk, and like every aspect of this stubborn package it presents itself on its own terms. The nine tracks total over 70 minutes and demand to be heard more-or-less as a whole. Chock full of hit singles? Not likely. Most of these songs take the length of your standard single just to get underway.
If Jamaica’s rhythms seem to have been forged in the tropical heat, Icelandic rock music has formed crystal- like in the country’s chilly landscape. The tempos are glacial, the textures hard and craggy. Perhaps only the Scottish group Mogwai or Dunedin’s HDU have maintained so downbeat a groove for the entire length of an album. And yet this music is not static. While Sigur Ros’s melodies can be almost folksy, usually built over a simple pair of modulating chords, the real drama is often happening underneath. Cymbals explode volcanically, synthesisers boil and spurt, guitars crash and cascade. Or they can evoke an eerie stillness, as they do at the start of “Hjartad Hamas”, with saxophones calling like foghorns across a harbour.
I don’t know if anyone has coined the phrase ‘new progressive’ but there’s a growing number of bands around the world that fit the bill, Sigur Ros among them. Like their lumbering 70s counterparts, they use the album as a frame for a would-be symphony while maintaining an almost anonymous presence behind a towering wall of sonics. In fact I’ve wondered if Agaetis Byrjun isn’t just Dark Side Of The Moon all over again – palatable only because I am unable to understand a word this all-male group’s fragile, feminine-sounding vocalist is singing. But when I finally unearthed an interview with the band (in the Shetland Times, of all places), it was revealed that the singing is not even in conventional Icelandic, but a nonsense language of their own invention which they call Hopelandish. What’s more, they insist that the lyrics are unimportant, if not completely meaningless – the babble is simply there for texture.
It all ties in with the rootless quality I’ve found in other Icelandic pop, and which is paramount in the music of Sigur Ros. It is almost the diametric opposite of Irish pop, which constantly looks back to the past, consciously drawing from the deep well of tradition. The Icelanders, coming from a country that is both socially and geographically young, seem to be inventing a music that has no connections at all. They are attracted to the harsh, unexplored sounds of electronica, which they combine with anything from string quartets to brass bands, to build otherworldly, often chillingly beautiful musicscapes, quite unlike anyone else’s.