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billboard (ágætis byrjun)

it is commonly believed that iceland's unflattering name arose as an attempt at obfuscation on the part of settlers who wanted to keep the island's majesty to themselves. to do the equivalent to reykjavik quartet sigur rós would be nothing short of criminal.

"ágætis byrjun," which approximates in english "a new beginning" or "a new start," is the icelandic chart-topping group's first release to reach the outside world and a fine introduction to its gentle psychedelia.

even though they won't understand the lyrics, fans of mogwai, radiohead, the verve, and chicago's kranky label will undoubtedly embrace "ágætis byrjun " for the sheer emotion it evokes. singer ján thór birgisson's falsetto wails leave a hint of melancholy that's only strengthened by the music's ambient backdrop. most of the songs begin slowly and build to an inevitable crescendo, but the end result overcomes the formula's predictability.

a tribute to sigur rós is its ability to retain an organic texture while dealing in the ethereal world of post-rock psychedelia. surging strings, horns, and the occasional harmonica keep the walls of guitar scrawl and feedback firmly rooted, while allowing room for birgisson's lush vocals to soar over top.

most of the songs run long, with plenty of twists and turns along the way. "olsen olsen" utilizes piano and slide guitar to great affect, while "avalon" enters the fold with acoustic guitar and bells. the eight-minute "hjarta hamast" employs horns and guitar feedback to create a hypnotic drone that continues until the beat picks up and kickstarts birgisson's plaintive howls.

"ágætis byrjun" is alluring, exotic, and unspoiled, just like the country that spawned it.

(jay defoore)



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