Sigur Rós: Icelandic export breaks boundaries

By Jared Horney
May 27, 2004

In summer 1999, I found myself electronically paying a small Icelandic label called FatCat to ship a CD to me in the States. My curiosity had been piqued enough to cave in and buy a CD without even hearing it. The album was Sigur Rós’s “Agaetis Byrjun,” the sophomore release from a quartet whose first album, “Von,” was a sometimes minimalist smattering of reverb-washed vocals, found sounds and a hearty amount of experimentation. “Von” was an interesting sonic experience at best, but the follow-up would be the band’s sprawling masterpiece and would be the springboard for their popularity in both their native Iceland and overseas.

The CD arrived in the mail with a hand-written receipt. I remember starting my car to go to work as the first strains of the intro to “Sven-g-Englar” languidly poured from the car’s speakers. By the time the incredible string-powered epic “Staraflur” had finished, I had been idling in my job’s parking lot for five minutes. Never before had a CD exceeded my expectations to this degree. Never had I expected to be so touched upon the very first listen. Most importantly, never had I heard anything quite like it. Throughout the day, Sigur Rós’s songs slept in the back of my head, rustling from time to time with impatience. I had never wanted to hear a full album so much. When I finally heard all of “Agaetis Byrjun,” I knew I had found my favorite band. It’s been five years since that day, and they’re still at the top of my list.

In a day and age when a new genre seems to be created every hour (“neo-folk shoegaze lap-pop,” anyone?), Sigur Rós’s sheer originality looms over any genre-pegging one could attempt for the band. The epic length and spacey drones have drawn them comparisons to Pink Floyd. Their feedback-drenched aching walls of sound have suggested My Bloody Valentine. For their more aggressive songs, similarities to Mogwai come to mind. All of these parts are true to some degree, but in this band’s case, the whole is easily greater than the sum of its parts. For every similarity to another band Sigur Rós may possess, they incorporate a style all their own. Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson sings in the made-up language of “Hopelandic,” a mix of gibberish and proper Icelandic. The band incorporates an E-Bow that Jonsi rakes across his guitar strings, generating a wailing that sounds both mournful and powerful. Their music is rich with detail; a contest on the excellent fan-run website was held to name as many instruments on “Agaetus Brjun” as one could. With this variety, ambition and innovation, Sigur Rós has come to be recognized as something important to modern music. Subsequently, their popularity has grown, and Sigur Rós now has sold more than a million albums worldwide.

From the keening strains of Jonsi’s vocals to the swell of strings in more epic numbers such as “Flugufrelsarrin,” Sigur Rós stands out as a band with a unique sound. How does this rest, then, back-to-back with the somewhat stagnant state of pop music or the rapidly rippling trends such as garage rock? Popularity is fickle in the music market, and a critic’s review can bring a band popularity or quietly tuck their careers back into bed. Worse, a band can tailor its sound to what they think the public would like to hear.

Simply put, Sigur Rós has always seemed effortless in creating music that is decidedly unlike anything else. With each release, the group sidesteps traditional staples often found in the music industry in order to pursue their own sound, all the while still being appreciated by popular culture. An example of this is their third album, 2002’s “( ).” With no real lyrics and no song titles listed, the eight-track album is a more raw, darker outing than the lush “Agaetis Bryjun.” This abstract approach to the album hardly shook their fan base; the video for the first single, “Vaka,” netted a Best Video Award of 2003 at the MTV Europe Music Awards. Some may call Sigur Rós inaccessible, but at the heart of the band is an earnest passion that has garnered loyal fans from around the world. Isn’t that what good music should be about?

The future is promising for this band. Having recently played a live improvisational show with Radiohead for a modern dance piece called “Split Sides” by Merce Cunningham (the Sigur Rós portion of the show was recently released as “ba ba ti ki di do”), Sigur Rós is now recording their forth album with a desired release date of this year.

Related link: Sigur Rós’s official site