In their native Icelandic, Sigur Rós means “victory rose.” That phrase, elegant in its simplicity and connoting awe-inspiring grandeur, perfectly sums up the sound of the band’s ecstatically beautiful guitar music.
As a genre descriptor, “post-rock” seems to have snobbishness baked right into it. One envisions the archetypical record store clerk pushing his black-frame glasses up the bridge of his nose with tattooed arms, sighing as he explains how Tortoise’s complex polyrhythmic structures create heightened tension and exemplify direct through-lines from classical minimalism and jazz … and so on. And yet: “post-rock” is handy indeed, a perfect way of describing bands like the aforementioned Tortoise, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Sigur Rós, one of the genre’s most iconic acts.
The band debuted in 1997 with Von, an album of muted experimental rock that owed a great deal to the shoegaze legends of the ’90s. It’s a good record that holds up well, but it sounds decidedly simplistic in light of the bigger, bolder sound that defined Sigur Rós later on.
That sound was codified with their second album, Ágætis Byrjun, an epochal record of long, languid orchestral rock songs whose monumental impact is hard to overstate. Think about the kind of sappy, saccharine music, designed to blatantly tug at the heartstrings, that’s all over soundtracks for film, TV shows, and commercials. This music wouldn’t exist were it not for Ágætis Byrjun, which created its blueprint.
Make no mistake, though: Ágætis Byrjun is a flawless, timeless album. A record so intensely imbued with emotion is rare. If you want to know what it’s like to yearn, you could hardly do worse than listen to Ágætis Byrjun.
In fact, Sigur Rós’ music is like an emotional tabula rasa: It seems to contain all of human experience within it. Happiness, sadness, love, heartbreak, triumph, loss — it’s all there, often in the same song. Their lyrics, almost always in Icelandic — and sometimes in Vonlenska, a gibberish language made up by the band — compound this effect: Singer Jónsi Birgisson’s voice is like a mirror, reflecting back to listeners what they wish to see in it. (Unless they speak Icelandic, that is.)
But when a band writes an album as tremendous as Ágætis Byrjun, there always looms the problem of the follow-up. Sigur Rós handled this remarkably well with their 2002 album, called ( ) — whose tracks are all untitled — a record similar in mood to Ágætis, except even more overtly emotional. Their fourth album, Takk…, followed a similar trajectory.
They didn’t sit still, however. Album five, Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, engages with folksier, lighter-hearted sounds. Then came Valtari, a moody ambient record that reduced the Sigur Rós recipe to its elementals. On their most recent album, Kveikur, the band became a three-piece and flirted with up-front sounds, emphasizing the “rock” in “post-rock.”
Nearly 20 years on, Sigur Rós remain one of the world’s singular rock bands.