Much has been made of Sigur Rós’ music and how it reflects the landscape and climate of their native Iceland. The only view of Iceland I’ve ever received is through the films of Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, such as Children of Nature and Cold Fever. The former portrays Iceland as a haunting land of childhood and nostalgia, the latter as a barren, frigid landscape populated with ghosts and restless ancestors. And one experiences both extremes while listening to Ágætis Byrjun.
As beautiful as Ágætis Byrjun might be, it is a foreboding beauty. But the music is often as fragile and delicate as a snowflake. One minute, the listener is enveloped by soaring strings and angelic vocals. “Svefn-G-Englar” begins the album off with sonar pings and a gentle organ melody, and then, a wave of sound floods the entire song as the guitar lets loose a barrage of noise so beautiful it’d break Kevin Shields’ heart. But elsewhere, the album is whipped with frigid electronic winds and shrieks, like the Icelandic winter coming down hard with a vengeance. But even in that frigid, barren icestorm is a beauty.
I wonder how these songs began in the minds of these Icelandic lads. How did a group of friends ever sit down and plan to write songs as moving and powerful as “Starálfur” or “Vidrar Vel Til Loftárása”? Songs like these belong in movies at those pivotal scenes when someone has a religious experience, when long-lost lovers are finally reunited, or when someone is brought back from the brink of death. Each of these songs nearly bursts at the seams, overflowing with string arrangements, lush piano melodies, waves of feedback and electronics, and Jonsi’s utterly inhuman and inexplicably gorgeous vocals. The only answer is that music like this is not planned. It just is.
I’ve always liked the concept of the “spirituality of aesthetics”. That is to say that art, by it’s very beauty and artistic nature, points to God. Sigur Rós’ music is the perfect example of this. I don’t know Sigur Rós’ religious affiliation, if any. I don’t know what they’re singing about (the band sings in a mixture of Icelandic and the band’s own language, “Hopelandic”). They could be singing about eating toast and reading the morning paper for all I know. But if one believes that the arts allows us to tap into a Divine spark of creation, than Sigur Rós sounds like they have a direct pipeline to that fire.
You can hear it in the way their music builds and crests. You’ll know it when Jonsi’s vocals break through the stratosphere until he’s wailing in the distance like a soul lost at sea, asking you to join him on the other side. And just when you’re shaking your head at that beauty, a wall of sound crashes down around you like the waves of an arctic ocean, both deadly and beautiful in its savagery.
And you might shake your head and feel that it was all calculated to make you go “ooh” and “aah”, and maybe, somewhere deep inside, a little voice will be saying that it’s too much, that they’re trying too hard to be atmospheric and dreamy. And maybe that little voice will be saying that Sigur Rós is just ripping off bands like Spiritualized and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and that what you’re listening to is really no more than a lot of psych-rock wankery. And by the album’s end, you’ll realize that little voice is totally correct.
But you’ll also realize that you simply don’t care.