Friday, August 24, 2007

[083] Ágætis Byrjun

Album: Ágætis Byrjun ["An Alright Start"]
Artist: Sigur Rós
Release Date: June 1999 [Iceland], 2000 [UK], 2001 [US]
Label: Bad Taste [Iceland], FatCat [UK], FatCat/Pias America [US]
Producer: Ken Thomas

- from "Svefn-g-englar"

I had a friend named Vinny. Well, honestly he wasn’t really my friend in that we hung out all the time. He was a friendly acquaintance, a friend of a friend, and a co-worker. We acted like friends though; when you worked at Tower Records, it was so comfortable there that you’d be hanging out even when you weren’t on the schedule. A whole group of us that worked at Tower went to the first Joey Ramone birthday bash at Hammerstein Ballroom; Vinny dug Cheap Trick that night. When Cheap Trick played their first three albums live, and I couldn’t go because I was sick as a dog, Vinny went and bought the classic black & white Cheap Trick tee for me. In turn, I turned him on to all the new music that was coming out at the time. He asked me one day, “What’s up with this Icelandic band Sigur Rós? What do they sound like?” I said they sounded like the music in your dreams. For some reason that was enough; Vinny loved this album. Remember the midget in Twin Peaks, how he talked backwards? A lot of creative people have proposed that language is reversed in deep sleep dream world; it seems like a pretty cool fantasy storytelling guideline, like any kind of Lightsaber-type weapon can cut through any material. The “Intro” to Sigur Rós’ second album is all reversed. Maybe I was right about the dream thing.

Over the years, the album has been grouped in with the “Post-Rock” sub-genre of the Alternative massive. To me though, there’s something very different going on; you can draw a line between bands like Slint, Mogwai, and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Sigur Rós doesn’t really sound like them though. Those bands are hard, Sigur Rós is soft. They are cold, Sigur Rós is warm. Their structures are straight lines, Sigur Rós’ structures are round. Where most Post-Rock bands attack their music, like the tensing and release of a muscle, Sigur Rós is content to float, relaxed, more akin to an electronic ambient artist looking to rock out every once in a while. Within that dream world, their music moves like an amalgam of other art forms joining in unison. The string arrangements lay flat like a canvas before being stretched, while the piano and synths and organs flow like paint, brushed and splattered and dropped like a work by Jackson Pollack. The drums are like the tip of the pencil, sketching and stippling out a rhythm. The guitar is strummed and massaged and tweeked and bowed, the wall of distortion and effects sculpted like clay and baked into shape. The foreign words perform interpretive dance, twisting and undulating contorting themselves over the airy soundscapes.

The one way that Sigur Rós and those other Post-Rock bands do intersect, however, is that they both do a great job of approximating the tone and movements of movie scores. Director Wes Anderson wisely used “Staralfur” in the climactic scene of his Life Aquatic, not just because it fit the sadness of the scene, but also the playfulness of the overall film. The jazzy horns and synth that open “Ny Batteri” have Film Noir written all over them, and five minutes in, when the levee-breaking beat drops, you would know it’s time for that scruffy private dick and temptress with red tresses and heart of gold to run for their lives. Singer Jón Þór Birgisson has an almost alien presence which goes a far way to lending the band's music its otherworldy, Sci-Fi quality. He caresses his guitar with a cello bow, tickling massive whale songs out of it that make love to his ear-splitting helium falsetto. Singing in Icelandic or Hopelandic, a sort of singer's gibberish, his foreign words could just as easily be a lost Martian tongue.

With music providing the sountrack to our lives, certain songs and albums will always be associated with fleeting moments; for example, Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" represents one specific traffic intersection to me. I didn't know Vinny that well, but this album was part of his soundtrack, and it will always remind me of him. Vinny passed away in July 2001; he was young, like only 26 or 27. But, he died peacefully, in his sleep, with the music of his dreams. And this music of his dreams is now his music of forever.

Tracklist [with translation]:
01. "Intro"
02. "Svefn-g-englar" ["Sleepwalkers"]
03. "Starálfur" ["Staring Elf"]
04. "Flugufrelsarinn" ["The Fly's Saviour"]
05. "Ný Batterí" ["New Batteries"]
06. "Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)" ["The Heart Pounds (Boom Boom Boom)"]
07. "Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása" ["Good Weather for Airstrikes"]
08. "Olsen Olsen"
09. "Ágætis Byrjun" ["An Alright Start"]
10. "Avalon"

"Svefn-g-englar" [from HBO's Reverb; live in Philly 09.01]

- BONUS: "Ný Batterí" [from HBO's Reverb; live in Philly 09.01]
- BONUS: "Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása" [video]
- BONUS: "Svefn-g-englar" [video]


Joel said...

Amazing post...I have never heard this album, but I feel like I have to now.

Veronica said...

I didn't think I would have a favorite review that wasn't related to THE CURE, but I was wrong. You said you weren't really good friends with Vinny, but I think you really knew him better than most people in his life based on what u wrote. He really would've loved what you wrote. This is a sweet tribute to him.