Welcome to that great Holy Grail of modern music: that which is original. But, is this album the true answer which we have hoped for so greatly? Is Ágætis byrjun some legendary accomplishment that will be forever remembered as the Great Album of our time? Let’s explore this creature and then we shall see.
First, it should be noted that Sigur Rós, an Icelandic band, has surely created something here that is unlike all other music today. Simply put, the entire sound of this album is unique beyond description. In some ways, this can be described as ambient music, but there is too much melody. In other ways, we could see this as some sort of progressive rock, but it simply defies that boundary, too. It is immediately clear that analysis of this album can’t be done in a conventional way; it’s not better than “this band” or in some way reminiscent “some style.”
Even more difficult is the actual lyrical content of the experience. Nothing is in English, so the vocals can’t be dissected for literal meaning (without translation). And to thwart even an attempt to use a Babel Fish, the Sigur Ros manages to include a created language without proper translation at all.
Then what exactly are we looking for? That answer is simple: sound. Always the important element of any album, the sonic experience is our guide through Ágætis byrjun.
From the outset, nothing is normal. Backward-sounding voices start and move with other sounds as if to sweep your mind clear of previous thought. Soon, the first track moves smoothly into “Svefn-g-englar.” The backward-noises end and organs start to cry out. It is then that the ears are again pulled away; heavily-distorted guitars ooze into the mind as you enter a new world. And then the Voice begins to sound. In a falsetto unmatched by normal human sound, delicate words are exhaled. Then, the angelic noise becomes stronger with what sounds as a refrain – only to disappear into the noise again. Undulations of noise carry you along as you willingly follow the progression of sound. Layers appear and then peel away as Sigur Ros moves into a different soundscape. Yet the pulsating organs remain constant, as if to remind us that this new world has some continuity. Light drums lend the sound a slight swing feel that complements the dizzying experience.
Heartbeats carry us into the second song, “Starálfur.” Now slightly removed from the awe-inspiring entrance into this realm, we can observe the beauty. Symmetrical strings move in a perfect way, working with a piano to shed light on the aural land. Yet even here, the Voice remains powerful and stunning. Painful tones exit the headphones as he cries. Yet the emotion only draws us closer to him, further into this world.
“Flugufrelsarinn” returns us to the sounds of “Svefn-g-englar,” with guitar sounds forming the boundaries of the land. However, it is a smooth bass following the shuffle of percussion that is the draw here. Carefully crafted vocal expressions continue to weave a tale of apparent sorrow. We cannot help but feel sorry and listen out of compassion, even as we sit in wonder of what is around him. Soon, the Voice becomes a soaring power, flying alongside an organ, inspiring excitement, even joy, from what was woe.
The Voice truly comes into perfection on “Ný batterí.” The song begins with foreign horns calling out, but develops into mesmerizing bass line; never flashy or overly powerful, but unique and fascinating. Then a pitiful whimper crawls out – the Voice, in a high falsetto, has reached a new depression. Tears readily form as his agony, his defeats, and his lowest moments are conveyed. Then terror strikes. Powerful drum assertions change the entire mood of the song and then the song itself folds over. Louder, more powerful and decidedly angry, the Voice repeats his words, now with a fury previously unheard. Then after a pause, a new section emerges. Raucous horns cry out, a trumpet blaring, guiding the ears through a burst of fiery energy.
A decidedly different swing feel drives “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm).” Here, a harmonica beings the experience, but quickly yields to an overpowering guitar noise. Now the Voice, in a subdued manner, seems to explain the world in pauses between parts of a ride. Then, without warning, everything flies into the atmosphere. Plucking strings join a heavenly violin as you soar above, only to come crashing down again, into the harmonica once more. Then (as if to remind you of the view) the song ends in the air again, fading out in static.
Suddenly we enter a slow-building song in “Viðrar vel til loftárása.” With static and distortion for nearly two minutes, the song suddenly gains a strong piano sound and a bass. The world here seems familiar, almost Earth-like and certainly lovely. Then layers of sound are slowly added, as strings and guitars join the scenery and your ears accept them. Through a radio (and midway in the song), the Voice returns, reminding us of the alien nature of the song; his strange voice, while compelling, does not fit in an Earthly environment. The song then quiets slightly before gaining the epic guitar distortion of earlier pieces. This, with the piano and the splendor of the strings, creates and absolute sonic vista where vision and sound blend perfectly in the mind. Surely an alien sunset looks as this song sounds.
In a gibberish language, “Olsen Olsen” follows the Voice through an apparently happy land. Still with emotion, he seems relieved and enjoys himself here as he dances around a solid bass. Remarkable flutes accent the beauty early on and a majestic trumpet calls above the land later. The chorus-like sound of many voices confirms the existence of others in this land; they, too, have found splendor here.
Yet beyond the glory of “Olsen Olsen,” we find what seems a realist as the Voice explains “Ágætis byrjun.” While never fully sad, there is never the joy achieved previously. Instead, gentle guitars pick slowly and pianos carry along over a few minor chords, despite their generally positive tone. The song remains generally clean; few distortions cloud the view of this world now. Perhaps this confirms its similarity to our own.
The closer, “Avalon,” leaves us feeling alone. Noises sound, synthetic organs follow along, and we are left without our guide. The Voice is nowhere, and the tone is of a strange blend; defeat and optimism mix here. Finally, the album fades away into silence.
It is necessary to look at each song like this. To pinpoint particular moments in this album is very difficult, as the entire thing just sweeps you away. There are very few weaknesses to be found, thanks to the artistic merit of the album. It is surely a record that any fan of music should own.
Yet that leads us to our original problem: it is unique, but is it truly great? Upon repeated listens, the album does reveal more of its greatness (as any good record will), but it also unveils a powerful problem. This album is very exhausting. By operating in a state where few songs could be useful singles, Ágætis byrjun does not hold up unless examined as a whole.
While some would argue that this state does make it the Great Album, the exhausting nature of the music does not help. After more than 5 listens, Ágætis byrjun becomes worn out, requiring time before the next sampling.
With such a weakness, the album doesn’t quite become that Greatest thing. However, with amazing vocal performances surrounded by unearthly music, Sigur Rós has created one of the best albums in the past few years. It’s amazing, it’s rough, it’s beautiful; Ágætis byrjun should be in your collection.