Sigur Rós

Áegetis Byrjun (Pias-America)

Best known for his visionary, atonal symphonies and his opium use, the early 20th-century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin once dreamed of an apocalyptic project called The Mysterium. Scriabin hoped to perform the synesthetic fusion of sound, light, and even scent at the base of the Himalayas, where angels suspended from Zeppelins would ring bells and columns of flame would rend the sky. Needless to say, it was never executed, but on its second album Iceland's Sigur Rós (loosely translated as “Victory Rose”) approximates what such an event might've sounded like.

When listening to the quartet's music, it's hard not to think of the Icelandic landscape, with its blasted skies, bleak tundra, and polar swing from perpetual darkness to midnight sun. Making full use of its multitrack studio, Sigur Rós piles on layers of droning guitars, glitch-ridden electronics, indigenous horns, and church organ until it arrives at sprawling, epic songs. Leader Jónsi Birgisson sings in an eerie, angelic falsetto — both in Icelandic and in his own made-up tongue, “Hopelandish” — that pierces the beautiful din like a shaft of light. The landscape comes into play again as the shape and pace of the band's songs call to mind the majestic creep of glaciers. If you listen closely you can identify familiar fragments — a chunk of indie rock strumming cribbed from Pavement, a wash of strings left over from 4AD's ethereal pop, a fossilized sample of blues harmonica frozen in midwail — but they often crack apart without warning.

Released in Iceland in June 1999, Ágætis Byrjun inspired an intense bidding war for worldwide rights after the group toured with Radiohead. The album may have come along at the perfect time, combining Radiohead's cosmic sprawl with Björk's elfin weirdness. Despite the experimental touches, however, Sigur Rós is firmly grounded in pop music, referencing the Beatles' lilting harmonies and sentimental balladry on several tracks. Combining this sweet sensibility with an overpowering attraction to the sublime, Sigur Rós achieves an affecting communion with its listeners. As the title track outgrows its folksy confines and swells toward its climax, a jubilant choral refrain twines with blaring horns, chiming piano, and percussive clatter, as though all the parades in the world have assembled into one massive procession. Doubtless, the ghost of Scriabin would march at the head of the column.

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