Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun

Ágætis Byrjun has received rave and rapt reviews from various quarters since its international release last year, all suggesting that here is a new kind of music. Music with few reference points in today's pop landscape. Music that transcends the mundane everyday concerns of the charts and floats up into an icy ethereal neverland of mysterious Nordic vocals and glacial guitars. Music that inspired Radiohead, apparently, to throw out the rulebook in Kid A.

All of which is bound to tempt the discerning Australian music-lover. Iceland is, after all, inherently fascinating to Australians, being on the opposite side of the world, covered in ice and volcanoes, and incredibly expensive to travel to. Why else would we be such enthusiastic consumers of the eccentric works of Björk, whose very name most of us can't even pronounce properly? (Personally, I blame the Swedish Chef.)

So it was that I finally succumbed to temptation and picked up Sigur Rós's ethereal mysterious icy glacial Nordic offering. The offbeat packaging was a first clue that here was something out of the ordinary (cf Spiritualized), with its round silvery booklet cleverly designed to mimic the CD itself. How I laughed as my discman's merciless laser burnt through its glossy pages.

Then, of course, there was the music itself, ethereal and, dare I say it, mysterious: wholly without precedent in the annals of popular music.

Except I had a funny feeling that I'd been here before. Grinding, echoey, submarine guitars playing epic ten-minute songs. High-pitched, soaring vocals in Scandinavian accents. Yes: Ágætis Byrjun was Meddle played by A-Ha.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The former is, arguably, Pink Floyd's best album, from the days before they became the Roger Waters Screeching Angst Band; and the latter recorded one of the finest moments in 1980s popular music—not their huge hit 'Take on Me', but the far more ambitious and air-guitar-worthy 'The Sun Always Shines On T.V.'

And neither is there anything wrong with Sigur Rós. True, I can't actually tell which song is their 'big' hit 'Ný Batterí'—or 'Ode to a Duracell' as I fondly think of it—without looking at the track number on the CD player. (That's the trouble with mysterious Nordic vocals; they're so damned mysterious.) And true, I can't actually recall much in the way of melodies, given that the entire album is slowed-down to the same speed as whale-song.

True, too, that it all sounded a touch depressing to my post-angst ears, and sent me scurrying back to my precious CD (six bucks at Cash Converters) of A-Ha's superlative second album Scoundrel Days for a spot o' retro boogyin' on the dance-floor. Next up, no doubt, I'll be re-listening to Meddle, and pondering how different my teenage years would have been had Roger Waters sung The Wall in Danish.

All true: and yet, this is startlingly original music, worthy of all the attention it has gained. Ethereal mysteriousness is sometimes just what the world needs. And any music that helped prompt Radiohead's recent experiments is thumbs-up in my book.

So thank you, Sigur Rós, for boldly naming a song 'Flugufrelsarinn' (or 'The Sarin Gas Flugelhorn') without making allowances for my strange Australian sense of humour.


First published in Records Ad Nauseam, 24 September 2001.
This page: 24 September 2001.

©2001 Rory Ewins