Iceland’s most famous post-rock band is named after the sister of singer/guitarist Jónsi Birgisson, who was born on the same day as the band was formed in Reykjavík in 1994. The group combine Jonsi’s high pitched, gorgeous voice with pretty melodies and atmospheric backdrops. The group broke through to music nerd attention with their second album, Aegetis Byrjun, in 1999, and have continued to release high quality albums since.
Sigur Rós Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Aegetis Byrjun
Overlooked Gem: Takk
Unreleased outside their native land until 2004, Sigur Rós’ debut album by is markedly different from their other work, pursuing an ambient direction and concentrating on rhythm and texture rather than the emotive and cinematic sweep of their later work. In fact this album is so different from their later work that it’s almost appealing to an entirely different fanbase; I’m sure that there are people out there who prefer this album’s dark ambient textures to the orchestrated progressive rock that they would pursue on the next record. While the ambient tracks do work at setting a mood, they tend to overshadow the songs. Particularly tough are the twelve minutes of ‘Hafssól’, and the ten minutes opening of ‘Sigur Rós’
Nestled among the seventy minutes of running time are twenty minutes of vocal led songs. Cued up to play back to back, they would make a fascinating EP. The highlights are ‘Hún Jörô’ (Mother Earth), surprisingly danceable and surprisingly abrasive, and especially the six minute ‘Myrkur’ (Darkness), where the repetitive guitar locks into a groove that almost recalls My Bloody Valentine. The other two songs aren’t as strong; the short title track has a gorgeous vocal sound but is largely uneventful, and while the combination of ethereal vocals and driving rhythms on ‘Syndir Guôs’ foreshadows their later work, it drags at eight minutes long. The closing ‘Rukrym’, which appears after a long silence, is also dramatic, with the wordless vocals over the top enhancing it.
At seventy minutes of running time, Von can take some effort to get into; I’d recommend starting with the far more accessible Agaetis Byrjun, and coming back for the highlights from Von later.
Sigur Rós sound like an entirely different band with their sophomore effort, replacing the electronic soundscapes of the debut with a more song based approach, with Jonsi’s vocals far more prominent. If Von wasn’t a great record in its own right, its electronic approach is extremely influential on the sound of this record; underneath the orchestration and flowing piano, there’s often a rhythmic pulse or Jonsi’s sound sculpting with his bowed guitar. As a result the band’s sound is still glacial at heart, even if it’s augmented by majestic orchestration, and the cold beauty that results is stately and gorgeous. It’s possible to reference some seventies Krautrock or progressive rock as an influence – the keyboards from ‘Hjartao Hamast (bamm bamm bamm)’ could come straight from Pink Floyd’s Animals – but it’s also filtered through a post rock sensibility where shifts in dynamics are used to break up the long songs instead of virtuoso soloing.
With the orchestration, stately tempos, and Jonsi’s clear voice improbably pitched between that of Yes’ Jon Anderson and a castrati, on paper Aegetis Byrjun sounds like Enya-like easy listening, but Sigur Rós project a sense of hipness and musical integrity that makes it impossible to write them off as new age noodling. This detached beauty is aided by the foreign language – for all the English speaking listener knows, these songs could be computer instruction manuals – and at times Jonsi uses Hopelandic, a language of his own invention. If Von felt like a tentative foot in the water, Aegetis Byrjun is a fully realised work with an immediately identifiable sound that owes little debt to what came before.
The nine pieces of Aegetis Byrjun are spread over seventy minutes, although it’s far more accessible than this would imply. The group’s distinctive sound disguises their musical range, from the beautiful lullaby of ‘Staralfur’ to the intoxicating rhythmic rush of ‘Ny Batteri’, although the gorgeous and more acoustic based ‘Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa’ might be the album’s single greatest achievement. If you want to listen to beautiful sissy music that your friends won’t disown you for liking, Aegetis Byrjun is the best place to start in the Sigur Rós catalogue, an album that’s dependably gorgeous yet with scarcely a dull or predictable moment over its seventy minutes of running time.
It’s difficult to discuss these Sigur Rós albums in much depth – firstly, they’re all kind of similar sounding – even though each of their albums has its own character, a Sigur Rós song is still instantly recognisable with the band’s cinematic, stately sound and Jonsi’s unique voice, while it’s also impossible to go into the meanings of their lyrics since they’re all in Icelandic or Hopelandic. () varies most substantially from its predecessor by dispensing with the orchestrations and relying solely on the band themselves; yet even without the orchestration, Sigur Rós still have a large, cinematic sound, with Jonsi’s ambient yet imposingly large guitar style. Despite the grandiosity of the sound, losing the strings does take away some of the musical colour and () has less of the melodic fluidity of Aegetis Byrnjun, instead presenting a darker and more textural side to the band. This does means that overall there’s less happening in the mix, and as a result () can be more monotonous than Aegetis Byrnjun in places. But by and large it’s another stellar set from the band, even if it does take longer to uncover its secrets; there’s an elegant grace in the way that their pieces ebb and flow, and a tangible beauty.
() is divided into two halves, with a clear gap between the two sides, and in general the first half is more accessible than the second. The first two songs are more in the vein of Aegetis Byrnjun, while the two subsequent tracks take a more direct approach; the mesmerising piano arpeggios of ‘Samskeyti’ are simple, yet effective, while ‘Njósnavélin’ mixes in a beautifully stately guitar progression with keyboard breaks reminiscent of Yes. The toughest going is around ‘E-bow’ and ‘Dauôalagiô’, lengthy tracks that are built around Sigur Rós’ less prepossessing melodies – ‘Dauôalagiô’ is little more than a series of crescendos around a droning Jonsi vocal that’s surprisingly grating and a vocal melody that’s surprisingly repetitive. ‘Popplagiô’ restores the beauty with a typically elegant melody. () is a difficult record after the easily approachable beauty of Aegetis Byrnjun, but it has plenty of moments of transcendent gorgeousness, and if you loved Aegetis Byrnjun you’ll want to want to hear this one too.
With the release of their fourth album, there have been suggestions that Sigur Rós are repeating themselves. Yet it’s hard to know where the band can take their sound, and even though there are hints of exploring different directions on Takk it’s largely a continuation of the lush beauty of Aegetis Byrnjun. Having said that, ‘Saeglopur’, the standout track here, is perhaps of sign where the group could head, a repetitive and menacing track based around a heavy, almost danceable, beat and an insistent piano line; almost like a Von track with the headier soundscapes of Aegetis Byrnjun thrown in behind. ‘Andvari’ is also interesting in that it’s mostly an orchestral composition with little input from the band, perhaps another possible direction for the band. While there are also subtler new ideas introduced like the marching band breakdown in ‘Se Lest’, but basically this is more of the same from Sigur Rós. Their lengthy, slow paced albums can be hard to find time to digest, but they’re immensely rewarding all the same, with the band’s fluent melodies and sense of space.
To paraphrase Frank Zappa, writing about Sigur Rós songs really is like dancing about architecture; with no idea what these songs are actually about, it’s hard to give more than a basic description of what’s happening. Aside from ‘Saeglopur’, other highlights include the climactic ‘Hoppipolla’, with a gorgeous string riff and an abrasive Jonsi vocal. ‘Gong’ breaks down to a pretty electric piano, while ‘Glosoli’ builds from an ominous bass rumble into a huge wall of guitars. ‘Svo Hljott’ is a typically melancholic piece of gorgeousness, while ‘Milano’ is fully of stately piano atmosphere.
Breaking new ground or not, this is just great music; if the slightly superior Aegetis Byrnjun hadn’t been released first, I’d rate this even higher.
2007, not rated
Not a studio album, this is a two disc compilation – the first disc is outtakes, while the second is a live disc of acoustic reworkings. I never heard it, but I’m listing it for completeness.
Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
Sigur Rós’ fifth album witnesses the group moving towards a more streamlined sound and shorter songs, but at the same time it’s largely similar to their earlier work. The album does opens disarmingly with the panning acoustic guitars of ‘Gobbledigook’ – its pastoral strums are different from anything the band have released before, like an excellent piece of freak-folk.
But it’s not representative of the rest of the record, which generally reverts to type. You could argue that a song like ‘Íllgresi’ is a departure from the band’s earlier work, but it’s very much a Sigur Rós melody and vocal – it’s just backed by acoustic guitar rather than synthesisers. The other change for the group is their first English language song, ‘All Allright’, which closes the album. Elsewhere, the excellent ‘Ára Bátur’ could have come straight from Aegetis Byrjun. ‘Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur’ is a pretty tune and the subdued piano line of ‘Fljótavík’ is beautiful
It’s tuneful as always, but Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust still feels like a second tier album from the band.
I have these, but haven’t listened to them enough to review yet.
Ten Favourite Sigur Rós Songs
Viorar Vel Til Loftarasa