Release Date: 05.22.01
Record label: fatcat / mca
Coming Up Rós-es
by: matt halverson
The first few chapters in the story of electronica's entrance in to mainstream music bears a strikingly similar resemblance to that of the rise and fall of the Internet's explosion and subsequent implosion: Media outlets overly anxious to cling to the proverbial "next big thing" wallpaper the country with magazines, newspapers, newsletters and any other wood pulp product with proclamations and prognostications of the coming revolution. ("Behold, a dead horse!") And when the electronic Age of Enlightenment failed to muster more than the power of a cap-gun, those articles and predictions weren't worth any more than the toilet paper that nervous-bowled record execs and online CEOs were wiping their asses with.
Now that the 1s and 0s have settled in this nuclear winter of the dot-com age (below the bottom line, in most cases), it's easier to distinguish the good from the bad. Slipping in fashionably late for the party, Sigur Rós have shown up just in time to offer a soundtrack for electronica's funeral procession. It's almost as if they waited around just long enough to glean the few bytes of information on how to make good e-music from the countless synthesizer troupes that just couldn't quite get it right.
But all of this might suggest that Ágætis byrjun, the group's sophomore effort, is an amalgam of bleeps and bass lines, the staples of any standard electronica collection, which it isn't. Well, not exactly. Originally released in 1999 in the quartet's homeland of Iceland, Ágætis (which, fittingly translates roughly to "Good Start") is a dreamy, ambient journey into art-rock territory that Radiohead has only recently made palatable with the back-to-back releases of Kid A and Amnesiac. While the watery near-bliss of those albums hinted at inspired new avenues in sonic landscapes, though, Sigur Rós dive headfirst into oceans of mind-expanding beauty. When the guitars-in-space reverb of "Svefn-g-englar" let loose and singer Georg Holm's falsetto rises, the music literally lifts up out of itself in an exultant rush. Prepare to evacuate soul.
What made pure electronica so difficult to swallow was its sterile, hospital-corners emptiness, so the irony that it took a group of musicians from the Icelandic tundra to inject warmth into the genre is exceptionally beautiful. The multi-tasking Reyjavikians throw an electric blanket on the corpse of electronica to create their other-worldly sound, effectively reviving it with string arrangements, guitars, piano, organs, a horn section and, in one case, a harmonica. But just as easily as they stir the pot with their eclectic blend of musicianship, Sigur Rós can strip it all away to Holm's lilting cries and guitar feedback before ultimately bringing the noise with the sonic pastiche of "Hjartó hamast (bamm bamm bamm)." The layering is as deep as the Atlantic, but as light and airy as the mist that collects in its bays.
The fact that the band is adept at employing such a vast range of instruments makes it difficult to categorize Ágætis as e-music, but it's clearly the next step in the evolutionary rise of a musical form that may not establish itself in the mainstream of Top 40 radio but that certainly proves creativity still exists in the post-rock world. How unfair that Radiohead will forever be credited with "daring" to plum such interesting territory. Whether they receive the success or recognition for such inventiveness (which they won't, by the way), Sigur Rós can sleep easy knowing no one has yet to approach the beauty with which they've transformed electronica.