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Sigur Rós - Ágćtis Byrjun CD (album) cover

ÁGĆTIS BYRJUN

Sigur Rós

 

Post Rock/Math rock

4.14 | 514 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Agaetis Byrjun' - Sigur Ros (81/100)

I think I've come a long way in my appreciation for Sigur Rós. Sometime during high school, I came across a copy of Takk... available for loan in a public library. For all of the great things I'd heard about the Icelandic darlings, I was pretty quickly repulsed by the all-too precious tone and childlike vibe that seemed to have worked its way into every lilting moment of music on that album. I barely made it through a single listen before setting them down for good, passing Sigur Rós off as some sort of moody Alvin and the Chipmunks-type deal. Years (and some eye-opening experience with ( )) later, I've dived into Ágćtis byrjun with a more enlightened set of ears. It's probably still too precious, too cutesy, and too childlike for my usual tastes, but the reasons why the album has earned such an honoured place with so many fans have not gone over my head. Ágćtis byrjun skirt the uncommon boundary between rock and ambient music; the sweeping textures are vast and effective, and the songwriting underneath is most often inspired. I might still prefer the brooding atmosphere of ( ) over this, but the fact remains: Ágćtis byrjun serves everything a listener could possibly want out of a Sigur Rós record.

Even relative to other post-rock, Ágćtis byrjun feels incredibly ambient in the way Sigur Rós have arranged and realized it. Most post-rock bands (I'm thinking go-to staples like Godspeed and Explosions in the Sky) revel in this sort of soaring atmosphere, but there's almost always a sense of rock repertoire in the music. With Ágćtis byrjun, I would hesitate to say there's even much in the way of guitar riffs. Most of the distinctive sound is brought in waves of texture, delivered by a guitar played with a bow- the sort of unconventional approach Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page would take out during extended live solos as an intriguing novelty. With Ágćtis byrjun especially, Sigur Rós have taken the potential of a bowed guitar to its natural conclusion. Beyond a doubt, it's the most innovative aspect Sigur Rós have in their arsenal. The bowed guitar flourishes are larger-than-life, but lack any sort of threatening edge or the grit of traditional riffs. In many cases, I'd cite non-threatening instrumentation as a bad thing. For Sigur Rós, they wear it as an asset. And it works.

As is often the case for the brighter side of ambient music, the atmosphere here is one of soaring. Cheery, hopeful, redemptive feelings are awash in the midst of the indistinct guitar textures, the light string sections and pleasantly dreamy atmospherics. It's interesting (though, for many, redundant) to note that singer Jonsi vocalizes in an invented language called Vonlenska (Hopelandic, for us anglophones). Relative to the surge of positive emotions on Ágćtis byrjun, it's quite a thing that the so-called lyrics are about nothing at all. I may be digressing a bit, but it says something about the nature of music when such vivid mental images are conjured when listening to songs with no set or determined meanings. Moreover, at least from my own experience as a listener, it's quite rare to hear a band take such ambitious lengths to portraying the positive side of emotion. Very often, it's the darker feelings that evoke strong artistry. Is it because happiness is seen as unworthy or shallow in the eye of the artist? I'm not sure, but to date, there haven't been many albums I've heard that, at their best moments, convey the sort of positive warmth that Sigur Rós have evoked on Ágćtis byrjun.

It feels important, however, to stress that these grand feelings are drawn from moments, rather than Ágćtis byrjun as a whole. There isn't filler here per se, but the album's distinctly ambient leaning can make the 70-odd minute length strain a listener's attention. For whatever reason, the album's latter act never really grips me, at least in the same way the first few tracks did. Is it because there is a true dip in quality? I don't think so. Most likely, it's because the magic of Sigur Rós' atmosphere begins to wear off when the somnolent ambiance is pushed past the hour mark. I don't think that's a failure as a listener either; added surprises (like the quaint woodwinds melody on "Olsen Olsen") would have served to alleviate he increasingly lackadaisical impression. Even so, there are songs here that would have sparked my attention no matter where they were on the album. "Starálfur" is an instantly lovely track, alight with piano and strings. "Olsen Olsen" is another nice one, with a similarly light and cheery feel to it. "Flugufrelsarinn" is not a world away from the rest of the album's general cheer and warmth, but compared to "Starálfur" before it, it has a more mysterious, even foreboding atmosphere to it. Sigur Rós are best with arrangement and texture, but they've proven themselves to be capable songwriters as well.

I'm not sure why I've left the most negative thing about Ágćtis byrjun and Sigur Rós as a whole until the last, but I also figure my general distaste for Jonsi's vocals are the most controversial(?) thing I have to say about the album. Looking back to the initial disgust I had towards Takk..., veyr little of it had to do with the instrumentation. Every doubt I had was pointed at Jonsi's voice, which was (and still) almost insufferably elfish and precious. Compounded with the Hopelandic lyrical angle, Jonsi's vocals aren't for everyone, and they're certainly not for me. With that said, it's rare to come across a vocalist in any genre who seems to embody their own originality so well. Jonsi's voice doesn't fill me with the joy in which others have felt, but his voice is instantly and irrefutably 'him'. No other singer is quite like Jonsi, which is certainly saying something to the band's credit.

With Ágćtis byrjun, Sigur Rós more or less established themselves as the musical equivalent to filmmaker Wes Anderson. It's a regression to a childlike innocence and wonder most of us felt at some point, and ultimately grew past. I've heard this childlike atmosphere in music before (I much prefer the way maudlin of the Well does it) but in that and so many other things, Sigur Rós have, in their own little way, found a slight slice of perfection. It does not have the dramatic intensity of ( ), nor do I find my heart infiltrated by it the way I'd expect from a considered masterpiece or favourite album, but Ágćtis byrjun has altogether earned its place in the post-rock canon. Beautiful, it is.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |

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