28 February, 2005

munkey's-eye view: SIGUR RÓS ~ ÁGÆTIS BYRJUN


If the groans of shifting glaciers became music, and the clear cold sky sang its heart to the fertile earth below...

The names are mysterious. The cover art is bizarre. Yet the surface intrigue is nothing compared to the lush, serene, apocalyptic and visceral sounds which are to be heard on the disc within. Sigur Rós (which translates as Victory Rose) are a band unlike any other you have heard. And that, for once, is a very very good thing. There are five of them. They are from Iceland. They formed while they were mere teenagers in 1994. But most importantly, they create epic soundscapes which warm the heart and break it at the same time. When you listen to their music, whatever emotions are inside you at the time - positive or negative - overwhelm and stay with you ~ forever fused with the indescribable sounds.

Ágætis Byrjun (approximately meaning "Good Beginning") is their second recording, but the first to be released outside of their homeland. It opens with a prologue of strange, subdued music played in reverse - like a Stone Roses instrumental that is drifting off to sleep. Indecipherable voices echo and fade. As the first track proper takes wing, vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson's voice soars like a boy soprano, in a baffling mix of Icelandic and a nonsense language of his own invention: Hopelandic. While none of the lyrics can be recognised by English ears, meaning and feeling shine through; the impact is seductive and breathtaking.

As the tracks progress - most of them over 8 minutes long, and bookended by strange atmospheric sounds - the ear is tantalised by swirling guitars, stately organs and gentle drums, embellished with beautiful orchestral and choral arrangements. Meanwhile Birgisson's astonishing vocal range runs the gamut from elegantly floating strains, to forceful outpourings of melody. To make things yet more interesting, woven among the familiar are strange sounds: an electric guitar played with a violin bow, vague electronic pulses and wails, perhaps heavily treated recordings of conventional instruments. Often it is impossible to tell just what physical objects are making the hypnotically beautiful sounds emanating from Ágætis Byrjun. This, of course, simply adds to the mystique. One can easily imagine that there are no physical objects involved at all: this really chould be the music of the spheres as heard by human ears.

If this review is somewhat vague, it's because it is impossible to adequately evoke the feeling of immersing yourself in Sigur Rós. An appropriate description of their art does not fit within our musical vocabulary. Like something beamed across the light-years from an alien world, or an aural time capsule left by a long-extinct race of semi-divine beings, this is music to move the soul and beguile the mind.

5 (out of 5)




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