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A Bowed Guitar Runs Through It 

Sigur Rós come in (through the out door) from the cold

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
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This is what Sigur Rós’ music sounds like: Backspun layered vocals from the dream-time drop away into a submarine’s distant sonar bell toll, hovering just beyond a gathering cloud storm. A church organ begins to hum . . . drums are slowly, steadily brushed from the back of some lava-lamped cave . . . and a bowed electric-guitar sound melts in, so colossal — bigger even than Page’s on “Dazed and Confused” — that it almost breaks apart under its own staggering weight. Finally, more than three minutes into this Icelandic quartet’s second album, Jón Pór Birgisson’s voice arrives, unsettling and intriguing, on a falsetto breath. It’s neither adult nor child, neither male nor female. It’s a voice that never broke — or one that broke a second time.

The song continues, and you realize that Birgisson’s words make little sense: They’re sung in a made-up language he calls “Hopelandish,” but they might as well be in Esperanto or Enochian. No matter. By the time “Svefn-g-englar” has concluded 10 minutes later, you know you’re in the presence of magnificence. This is super-IMAX, quadruple-THX music that could only emerge from a place with a lot of space and silence, a place whose very emptiness begs for songs and sounds that run big, deep and wide.

“We come straight out and admit that wide spaces influence us more than [it does other] bands,” Sigur Rós bassist Georg Holm told New Musical Express last year. “There are places on Iceland which no one has ever visited. Untouched places. I think our music is like that also.”

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It is. Ágaetis Byrjun isn’t stadium rock; it’s national-monument rock: sweeping, grandiose, ambient and anthemic, music that conjures visions of silent skies and roiling storms, of shuddering ice masses and black woods, of strange radiances on the horizon; music that slowly swells, arcs and crashes with all the heft, grace and emotion of Górecki’s Third. It has obvious precedents — Cocteau Twins’ ethereality and glossolalia, My Bloody Valentine’s sensuality/noise, Spiritualized’s symphonic ambition, Godspeed You Black Emperor’s bleak orchestral grandeur, et cetera — but it makes broader gestures. Ágaetis Byrjun doesn’t fade into darkness, narcosis or solipsism. It gets brighter ’til it whites out.

Take “Starálfur,” the second of the 71-minute album’s eight epics. Arctic winds and racing polydrums drop straight into a full orchestra with bare demo-quality guitar, Sgt. Pepper’s horn fare, Morse code and whistling winds — and Birgisson’s keening, intense voice, singing a gentle melody above soaring strings. Or “Hjartao Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm),” grounded in an electric-piano groove and tasteful harmonica, before a staggering, shimmering guitar rises up. The effect is overpowering and enveloping — like sliding slowly into a warm, gauzy, candlelit bath of sound. Birgisson sings, trembling, up close, and a distant, angelic answer-melody follows, a big, drumless chorus melody, just voice and orchestra.

It’s a strange, multifaceted ballad, finally building to a whiteout static attack that only a piano survives . . . which leads into the 10-minute-plus “Vioar vel tl Loftárasa,” one of the album’s highest lights. A chilled guitar chimes like a railroad signal; a piano line enters with roiling thundercloud accompaniment; a melody comes in from the cold on the wings of an orchestra, led by piano; then elegiac slide guitar, and finally vocals, as if broadcast over the transom from a distant outpost, warning of an impending tragedy. They bleed slowly into distant background, and after an absence of more than eight minutes, the bowed electric guitar returns in an absolutely cataclysmic surge. Strings fall in behind, eventually breaking into thousands of free-jazzing Zen-symphony violin eddies — a frozen tsunami suddenly liquifying and racing across flatland.

That flatland is the eight-minute “Olsen Olsen,” opening beautifully with the sound of archangels calling to mortals from down a celestial hallway. A simple, downbeat post-rock guitar line reminiscent of Tortoise, Low, Mogwai and legions of imitators is soon buried by Birgisson’s echoing multitracked vocals, to a flute solo that’s the overture for the song’s grand, swing-for-the-bleachers-and-puncture-the-Astrodome-ceiling chorus. “Olsen Olsen” concludes with a live audience milling around — 30 seconds later, the melody resumes on the now-distant flute, a pied piper wandering Reykjavík’s alleyways into the night.

“We are not a band,” say Sigur Rós on their Web site. “We are music.” Yes. Somehow these four guys in their early 20s, huddled in knit caps, heavy parkas and five-day-old beards, pale cheeks ruddy from the cold, have made music as strange and beautiful as the angel-winged fetus that graces Ágaetis Byrjun’s deep navy-blue cover. Music that captures whale song and wintertime, pink dusk and gray dawn, through the hearing-glass: music that comes to us now like nature’s echo.

SIGUR RÓS | Ágaetis Byrjun | (Big Cat import)

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