Album Notes - Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun

Album Notes - Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun

November 30, 2019

We've reached the end of this month of Nordiculousness, and with that we're taking a closer look at one of the most surprising "rock" acts in recent memory, in honor of their breakthrough 20 years ago. I hope you've found something to your calling over these past four weeks. While the Nordic November comes to an end, we likely haven’t heard the last from these artists...

Nordic November Week Four. Today: Iceland.

A friend once told me, or maybe it came from a drug band message board, I don’t know, due to life choices my memory is hazy, but still, I remember hearing: Don't get stoned before you see Sigur Rós. You might fall asleep. It was meant as a compliment. It was also true. The first time I saw the Icelandic crew back in 2005, I didn't follow that sage advice and nearly dozed off in my seat at Minneapolis' State Theater. When the group returned eight months later across the street at the Orpheum, I refused to make the same mistake. I was ready. Which is something that couldn’t be said about America when it came to Sigur Rós as they began their near-silent onslaught at the turn of the century.

Think of what was happening in the year Prince wanted to party like it was: Brittney Spears hit the scene with ... Baby One More Time; techno became truly mainstream with Moby's Play; hip-hop reached previously untapped markets thanks to Eminem's The Slim Shady LP; rap metal peaked for better (Rage Against the Machine's The Battle of Los Angeles) or worse (Limp Bizkit's Significant Other); Red Hot Chili Peppers found a second life via Californication; and to top it all off, the best-selling album of the year was Millennium from the Backstreet Boys. That’s a helluva diverse collection of legendary artists either reaching their pinnacle or announcing themselves to the world. 

Meanwhile, as Dr. Dre dropped a record titled 2001, halfway across the globe an unknown quartet from Reykjavík were the ones truly ahead of their time. Ágætis byrjun, the band's second album and one so vastly different from its predecessor two years prior, laid the groundwork for everything the Icelanders would come to achieve. Labeled "post-rock," the underlying sound is the wind blowing across a barren landscape. You're just waiting for a David Attenborough voiceover to begin. Jón Pór Brigisson, aka Jónsi, opts not to pick the guitar but bow, the effect of which chimes in early on the second track, "Svefn-g-englar," one of the band's most endearing and enduring songs. Those bowed textures proved crucial to the sound that became synonymous with Sigur Rós.

If this seems like something vastly different from what was transpiring on the western side of the Atlantic, it was. Ágætis byrjun wasn't even released in the USA until 2001, and the album paved the way for the band's place in the New World. Their 2002 follow up, (), incredibly landed at number 51 on the Billboard charts. Since then Sigur Rós have been a mainstay both commercially and in the minds of receptive listeners. Every LP has charted higher than this 1999 beauty, all while garnering more attention to this truly unique Nordic entity. They might be from the remote locale of Iceland, but fans the world over have come to embrace their chilling brand of elegance, forever warming the heart.