Perhaps it was Jón Thór Birgisson's ethereal voice -- which sounds more female than male, and even then hardly human -- that stirred Martin. Or maybe it was the Icelandic quartet's eerie bowed-guitar sound and its incomprehensible lyrics, sung in Birgisson's made-up Hopelandic language. Whatever the reason, Ágætis Byrjún was a brutally effective album that sounded unlike any other that year.
Those expecting a similar effect from the band's third disc, ( ), will be disappointed. When Sigur Rós first reached American ears, the group's sonic landscape was largely unexplored, and thus capable of inducing wonderment among listeners. The band even claimed it would single-handedly change music forever. Though that goal has yet to be realized, Sigur Rós' impact can't be argued: None other than Radiohead's Thom Yorke has cited SR's music as a powerful influence.
But following the release of Kid A and the breakthroughs of such bands as Múm and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Sigur Rós' epic sound is no longer unusual. While ( ) is just as enchanting as Ágætis Byrjún, it doesn't approach the revolutionary intensity of its predecessor.
Still, the album does achieve the breathtaking feat of being sparse and massive all at once, its collage of weepy strings, organ-and-piano dialogues, and slow, skeletal drums offering both delicacy and thunder. Throughout, the band veers between fragile vocal melodies and impossibly slow instrumental interludes, reviving musical motifs much like an orchestra would. Such recurring phrases give the CD a remarkable sense of cohesion: Birgisson deconstructs the same string of syllables time and time again, as the core melodies twist into an endless array of forms.
But while ( ) is indeed a powerful work, it finds Sigur Rós repeating a now-familiar formula. If the band truly wants to change the face of music, it'll have to do some evolving of its own.