Saturday, 21 June 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #9: Ágætis byrjun

In 1999, I was still an avid reader of NME, even if I often dismissed a lot of the writing as pretentious claptrap or bandwagon jumping. In one particular issue though, the Single of the Week was just too intriguing to ignore. It was for a song curiously entitled Svefn-g-englar by an Icelandic act called Sigur Rós, and was described by the reviewer as “so delicately beautiful, you feel as though you're trespassing by listening to something this intimate”[1]. To be honest, he had me at the first line when he mentioned Iceland.

I was fascinated by Iceland and its music, had been ever since I first heard the Sugarcubes a dozen years earlier. I knew nothing of this Sigur Rós band and had to check them out. No one stocked the single in Barnstaple so I had to order it; I only hoped it was worth the wait. 

It was; oh how it was!

Svefn-g-englar
Remember when I wrote about ‘Doolittle’ and I described the moment I heard its opening track Debaser for the first time? I called it a ‘jawdropper’; when words escape you and all you can do is wonder in awe at the magnificence of the sound, jaw hitting the floor in utter astonishment. Well, Svefn-g-englar sounded absolutely nothing like Debaser but my god did it have the same effect on me or what. For nine minutes (for ‘tis a long one) I was enraptured by the most spellbinding, hypnotic music I had ever heard. I could say nothing, I could do nothing – I just listened. In the words of the NME reviewer: “By the time it rumbles to a close, you realise you've been holding your breath in awe.” For once, I agreed with every word.

So I naturally bought the album. ‘Ágætis byrjun’ (trans. “A good beginning”) was the band’s second album but their first to be released outside of Iceland. It was everything I had hoped it to be. The thing about Sigur Rós in 1999 was that they sounded nothing like anything I’d ever heard in my life. I suppose, pointers to the likes of Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Mogwai are valid, but to me this band was totally fresh, unique even. For an album that weighs in just a few seconds short of 72 minutes, ‘Ágætis byrjun’ is just so compelling, it ends far too quickly. Each song takes its time to get going – in one or two cases it never quite gets going at all – but the rewards are sumptuous. Take that single, for instance: delivered at the pace of a crippled snail, it begins with the minor-chord drone of an organ enlivened only by electronic ‘pings’ that distressingly sound like a failing heart monitor. It’s only when Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson starts singing that you realise how damn special this thing is. In terms of tempo and arrangement, it doesn’t shift much, but it holds you in a trance for more than you’re strictly comfortable with, and yet you’re glad you succumbed to its force.

Ágætis byrjun
The follow-up single Ný batterí (“New batteries”) starts to the eerie spluttering of a brass band which sounds reluctant to get things going. A few minutes in though, and we get pounding drums, loud guitars and a ribaldry from the brass players that seemed impossible to imagine earlier on. Starálfur (“Staring elf”) stands out as a particular highlight on an album of highlights, delicately weaving itself into the fabric of a luxurious, yet humbly understated garment, a subtle adornment that would be terribly missed if it weren’t there. And then there’s the majestic Viðrar vel til loftárása (“Good weather for an airstrike”) the 10-minute opus that first appeared as the b-side to Svefn-g-englar. For me this song is the centrepiece of the entire record, its wonderfully grandiose crescendo elevating it to heavenly status.

The thing is, even a record this good has its limitations. It’s no wonder Sigur Rós’ music has soundtracked many a movie, TV show or trailer – it sounds visual. So it’s little surprise that the two videos made for tracks on the album go way beyond the remit of the pop video; they are cinematic experiences that take the music to an entirely different level.

I remember during one sleepless night some months after ‘Ágætis byrjun’ came out I got out of bed, went downstairs and put the TV on. I have no idea what show was being broadcast, but on it was the video for Svefn-g-englar. It was, quite simply, breathtaking. Filmed against a bleak, desolate Icelandic landscape a troupe of Downs Syndrome teenagers acted out the “sleepwalking angels” of the title. I had another jawdropping moment right there, and I may have even shed a tear – truly one of the most beautiful and touching music videos of all time. The video for Viðrar vel til loftárása, depicting two boys kissing during a football match and the ensuing fallout that occurs, caused controversy but nevertheless was named Best Video at the Icelandic Music Awards. It too was a thing of great beauty and illustrated how Sigur Rós more than just made music, they made soundtracks.

from the video for Svefn-g-englar
Apparently the band’s label only expected to sell 1,500 copies of ‘Ágætis byrjun’. To date its sales figures are in the millions, Sigur Rós is one of the most highly revered bands in the world and they continue to make remarkable music. Not bad when you consider the record’s acclaim was built primarily on word-of-mouth.

Staff at Sigur Rós’ website describe ‘Ágætis byrjun’ thus: “rumbling, pings, tjúúúú, palindromic strings, bjargvættur, the coughing brass intro, bamm bamm bamm, the crescendo, the flute, the simplicity, and it fades out. Press play again.”[2] I don’t know what all that means, but it sounds perfect. 

Soundtrack:

Svefn-g-englar [single edit] – Sigur Rós (from ‘Ágætis byrjun’)

Starálfur – Sigur Rós (from ‘Ágætis byrjun’)

Viðrar vel til loftárása – Sigur Rós (from ‘Ágætis byrjun’)


[1] Full review reproduced here: http://www.sigur-ros.co.uk/media/svefn/nme1.php
[2] http://sigur-ros.co.uk/band/disco/agaetis.php

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