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Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun – A Good Beginning (20th Anniversary Reissue)

Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun – A Good Beginning (20th Anniversary Reissue)

“We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music.”

Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun – A Good Beginning (20th Anniversary Reissue)

5 / 5

A Good Beginning.” Sigur Rós should face some kind of lawsuit for false advertising that blatant. To label Ágætis byrjun, the sophomore album by the Icelandic quartet, as merely “good”— worse, if you prefer the alternate translation “An Alright Start”—feels like the grandest understatement in the history of modern music. In advance of the album’s release, frontperson and guitarist Jónsi (Jón Þór Birgisson) made a bold claim: “We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music.” The thing is, though, he wasn’t entirely wrong—it may not have had the widespread impact he’d cheekily hoped for, but the fact that the album’s cover is adorned with an ethereal, glowing drawing of an angel fetus in utero feels like the visual manifestation of what Ágætis was able to accomplish.

So, what makes Ágætis so special, so unique? Honestly, everything. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could listen to it and not know it is utterly remarkable. To really get it, you need to go back to Von, their debut. Listening in hindsight, there were moments of grandeur, but nothing that you could grab onto in order to predict what would happen next. Von is screechy and strange, featuring many moments of difficult sparseness. If Von is the “Dawn of Man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ágætis represents the moment where the bone being thrown in the air cuts to an orbiting satellite. From the get-go, Ágætis really feels capable of changing our understanding of music.

As the dreamy, backmasked “Intro” fades out, a dull rumble and occasional radar ping remain, ushering us gently into “Svefn-g-englar,” Jónsi’s cello bowed guitar sounds like the song of a sea creature of immense size. We’re light-years from the brooding Sigur Rós of Von, left in a territory that feels weightless. Drummer Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson keeps a gentle pace as Jónsi coos softly in Icelandic, enough to let you drift off to sleep. At five minutes, everything but he and twinkling bells remain—a false sense of security before, just after the six-minute mark, Ágúst comes back, his soft patter ramping up before being joined by blaring organs, Jónsi’s voice working to match the new sound levels, before drifting back to dance along with his guitar whalesong.

This is our first taste of the playful ebb and flow that the band masters with this record. Post-rock often concerns itself with peaks and valleys, but for Sigur Rós, it’s more fun to be crafty with it. On “Starálfur,” the heart-swelling strings and twinkling piano fade out leaving just Jónsi and his acoustic guitar, sounding like the end of the song, before a surge pulls you back into the song’s expanse. This moment is legitimately awe-inspiring in a way that modern music rarely gets to be; I’ve been listening to this album long enough that I have its name tattooed onto me, but this moment makes my breath catch in my chest every single time I hear it. Nevermind the fact that “Starálfur” is about Jónsi meeting an elf: this is a band capable of emotional complexity that makes any language barrier meaningless.

What is it that helped Ágætis, and Sigur Rós, succeed outside of their own country while other non-English language albums did not? This is down to just how talented Jónsi is as a singer—his falsettos don’t sound human. He’s the frontperson of a band widely agreed to be post-rock, a genre typically defined by its lack of vocals of any sort. But because he’s singing in a language many listeners don’t understand, his crystalline voice becomes a precision instrument, and he’s able to harness the human voice’s ability to evoke emotion based on how it sounds, not solely the words being sung, giving them a substantial edge over peers like Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This is part of what makes Hopelandic (or Vonlenska)—the made-up language born here on “Olsen Olsen” that was used exclusively on their next album, ( )—such a clever trick: they ditch the pretense of language and make the most gorgeous gibberish you could ask for. Plenty could be said about how much impact is lost by translating the lyrics (the title track, for instance, is about how Von was an abysmal failure), but while his voice is truly important, the actual words themselves aren’t.

Past “Starálfur,” the band displays their innate ability to sequence and take you on an honest-to-god journey. The apocalyptic duo of “Flugufrelsarinn” and “Ný batterí” drag us into darker territories, closer in edge to the primitive landscapes of Von, but this time they’ve learned how best to utilize noise. Just listen to the intense drums of “Ný batterí” or the sizzling guitar noise of the brooding, acidic “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” which has organs and a goddamn harmonica, an entirely unexpected instrument even here. Then begins the crest back into more familiar climes—their own person spin on orchestral dream-pop. The piano-led and dreamlike “Viðrar vel til loftárása” and truly soaring “Olsen Olsen” combine to form the feeling of greeting a new day, the latter packed with flutes and a choir. When we finally arrive at the title track, the glockenspiel’s interpolation of the choir’s vocalizations feel like echoes of a dream. You could easily miss that it’s happening, but when you’re able to grab hold of it, even Jónsi’s falsettos ascending into the stratosphere can’t make you forget how incredible the dream was.

And for those who already own the record, I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to buy it again. The reissue comes with a treasure trove of rarities and demos, as well as the entirety of the band’s 1999 Íslenska Óperan performance on the day of the album’s release. There, they reconfigure the album entirely for a journey that helps the listener acclimate, while capturing just how incredible this band was (and still is) live. It also lets you marvel at the way the band’s setlist let them lead the audience gently into their new world: they give them “Von” and “Syndir guðs” from Von, before launching into a perfectly sequenced six-song stretch of Ágætis. It’s worth it to listen for the applause after each song, unfailingly the thunderous applause of an audience having their musical worlds rocked.

Remarkably, just one album later, they were able to utilize the purpose of “Olsen Olsen”’s Hopelandic as a language meant to complement the music that accompanies it to make the difficult, gorgeous ( ). There, they explored the darker urges of, say, “Ný batterí” to make something less mind-blowing, but still special. They’ve remained a very special band capable of intensely beautiful music, though nothing on this album’s level. Perhaps it’s because we know what they’re about now, and aren’t blindsided by their magic anymore. Twenty years later, though, you can’t miss how much of it they poured into Ágætis.

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