Week Thirty One: Ágætis byrjun

So what do I know about Sigur Rós? Icelandic.  Largely instrumental.  That they are very much the band of choice, or at least one of the bands of choice, for the people who decide on the accompanying music for documentaries on BBC4. I’ve listened to a couple of their other albums before, but Ágætis byrjun was entirely new to me.

After a very short introduction, called, appropriately enough, Intro, the first ‘proper’ song, Svefn-g-englar is  definitely familiar, to the point where I wondered if, despite thinking Ágætis byrjun was not one of the Sigur Rós records I’d heard, maybe it was lurking somewhere in my pile of CDs. More likely it was used as the soundtrack to something I can’t quite remember seeing on television. Listening to the rather otherworldly vocals, I found myself questioning my long-held assumption that the band’s singer was female, or perhaps that there were two different vocalists, one male and one female. But a quick look at Wikipedia confirmed that the band’s only singer is male and “known for his falsetto”. It is a mistake I’ve made in the other direction, being very surprised to discover that Wussy’s singer is a woman.

It’s followed by Staralfur. Here, the extensive use of piano and strings serve as a reminder that while the lazy comparison would be with post-rock bands like Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, they are, to make use of a lazy metaphor I rather hate, a more organic sounding band (my grandfather, an industrial chemist by trade, was apparently very dismissive of the use of the term to describe food, pointing out that with the exception of table salt, all food is organic.) There’s still plenty use of distortion pedals and synthesizers, but there’s also quite extensive use of acoustic instruments that Mogwai would never contemplate.

Flugufrelsarinn is perhaps the closest the band come to sounding like a conventional widescreen indie rock band who just happen to sing in Icelandic, while Hjartao Hamast, once the early waves of feedback have passed, settles down into what might be intimate confessional lyrics but, as I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s singing, could equally easily be a man reading out a shopping list. Viðrar vel til loftárása (the title, apparently, translates as ‘Good weather for an airstrike) goes in the opposite direct, beginning as a slightly melancholy piano piece with a dollop of what sounds like pedal-steel, as if the song is a refugee from distant country-and-western wars and hasn’t been able to fully assimilate into its new surroundings, but over the course of its 10 minute running time, it goes all ‘epic movie soundtrack’ and ends with a slightly discordant string section.

Over at Mookbarks, Fiona was speculating that this might have sounded much more genuinely different back when it was released in 1999. Speaking as someone old enough to remember, I can only say ‘not if you spent your teenage years listening to the Cocteau Twins, it didn’t.’ Because more than Mogwai, more than Explosions in the Sky or Tortoise or Slint or any of that post-rock brigade, it’s the Cocteau Twins that Sigur Rós really remind me of. Where the post-rock crowd ditched vocals altogether, both the Cocteaus and Sigur Ros retain them, but use them principally as a textural instrument (although in Sigur Rós’ case, that is probably just a reflection of my complete ignorance of Icelandic). Cocteaus singer Liz Fraser is from up the road in Grangemouth, but from her vocals she really sounded like she could have been from anywhere. Both bands dabbled with glossolalia – though I have to admit that in Sigur Ros’ case, I would struggle to tell the songs in Icelandic apart from those sung in a made up language. Both appear to be aiming for a cinematic sound. If to my ears, the Cocteaus just sound better, I’d concede that there’s every possibility that this is simply because I heard that at a formative age, and not as incidental music to a nature documentary on BBC4.

Highlights: Svefn-g-englar, Olsen Olsen



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