sigur rós | ágætis byrjun | rating: 9.4
icelandic lore tells of the hidden people who live in the crags and lava of jagged mountains. descended from the ancient guardian spirit, the hidden people come in many forms. the tiny blómaálfar dwell in flower blossoms while the common búaálfar reside on farms. but even in this modern age of cellphones and helicopters, icelanders continue to believe that the hidden people are still out there somewhere, prancing about in period clothing. construction workers will even curve roads around rumored dwellings of the hidden people. how can a modern people find faith in such fantasy? a heavy cloud of norse mythology and a breath-taking raw landscape explains most of it. plus, the indigenous music of sigur rós can only perpetuate such a religion.
the album begins submerged. sonar pings echo from liquid feedback-- invisible in a handful, but crushing you like an ocean in its volume. soon a cathedral organ moans. wire brushes drum in a sinking pace. a violin bow saws open the maw of massive guitar, spreading noise in clouds of blood. siren jón thór birgisson sings through every orifice-- including gills, perhaps-- creating the most inhuman vocals ever heard in rock (though skywalker sound could attempt a chewbacca-esque approximation by blending whales, jeremy enigk, cherubs, björk, and the blue alien from "the fifth element"). the song ends in an accelerating heartbeat that breaks into palpitations. sound fizzles out. you're dead.
a string section waxes as the album moves from "svefn-g-englar" to "starálfur." the chamber instruments flutter around skeletal drums and sepulchral bass. this music tethers to touchstones in classical as much as radiohead, like orff composing "carmina burana" for e-bow at absolute zero. the song breaks into brittle acoustic interludes where birgisson's vocals frost through your speaker. yet like icarus triumphant, the album keeps taking you higher (or deeper, depending on your perspective).
"ný batterí" opens with a disjointed band of muted horns. they deliquesce into chrome swirls of tinnitus and massaging bass. eventually, the song erupts in flaking layers of hissing drums. subtle bebop drums and kjarten sveinsson's fatty rhodes pianos kick up dust on "hjartað hamast" while birgisson rubs the sleep from his eyes. "olson olson" is simply the most soul-crushingly beautiful piece. this elfin masterpiece unveils mogwai's troll-rock for its soulless academics.
to term this music "post-rock" would be an insult. sigur rós are pre-whatever comes this century. piano, flutes, tremolo, horns, feedback, and that godly amazing voice scrubs souls pure with the black volcanic sands from the beaches of vík. birgisson's invented lyrical language of "hopelandish" may be crying in tongues or even plain gibberish, but sheer emotions like this cleanse as universally as sodium laureth sulfate.
sigur rós make this bombastic claim on their website: "we are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. and don't think we can't do it, we will." the fact that they've scored hits in iceland with this spectacular orchestrated soul speaks of both their power and the credibility of the natives. the alien angel fetus pressed in silver ink on the cover serves as the perfect logo. sigur rós effortlessly make music that is massive, glacial, and sparse. they are hidden people. children will be conceived, wrists will be slashed, scars will be healed, and tears will be wrenched by this group. they are the first vital band of the 21st century.