January 15, 2006


Nordic Tracks: How Did Reykjavik Become a Global Pop Laboratory? (GERALD MARZORATI, 4/22/01, NY Times Magazine)

Even in Reykjavik, though, Sigur Ros is something else. The band is the biggest homegrown musical sensation since the Sugarcubes, Iceland's first native-born rage when they burst forth 15 years ago. The country's Top 40, like its bland commercial radio, is programmatically 'N Synched and Britney-fied. Nevertheless, Sigur Ros's album "Agaetis Byrjun" reached No. 1 not long after it was released in Iceland in the summer of 1999 -- and remained on the charts for nearly a year. In a country of only 280,000 people, most of whom live in and around Reykjavik, the album has to date sold 16,000 copies, the equivalent of selling 16 million in the United States.

Only about 20,000 copies of "Agaetis Byrjun" (the title translates as "A Fine Beginning" or "An O.K. Start") have been sold in the United States since it became available last summer. But that number is misleading: the CD's are imports that had to be sought out in big-city specialty shops or on the Web. Still, the bleakly beautiful album made numerous end-of-year "best of" lists, including The Village Voice's annual nationwide poll of more than 500 pop-music critics, this despite the fact that none of them, presumably, could understand Sigur Ros's lyrics -- which, unlike those of Bjork, the former Sugarcube and Iceland's leading cultural export, are sung only in Icelandic.

That is, when what's being sung are lyrics and not simply, or not so simply, the wordlike oscillating intensities of Jon Por Birgisson's schoolboy falsetto. Jonsi, as he is known to everyone (Iceland's use of patronymic last names seems to have the whole country on a casual, first-name basis) also plays electric guitar, which he likes to bow to eerie effect. And while he is not officially the band's leader, he did give it its name -- Sigurros, or "Victory Rose," is the name of his little sister, who was born just before the band formed seven years ago -- and is chiefly responsible for its sound, which might best be described as wintry post-rock. The preferred tempo on "Agaetis Byrjun" is largo, the lyrics are hymnlike and the compositions are built less on verse-and-refrain than on the careful accretion of tone colors. Songs tend to unspool for eight minutes or longer and almost always toward an end of plangent inwardness, which is very Icelandic. It's a music forged in the studio: "Agaetis Byrjun" took nearly a year to complete, and Sigur Ros's new recording hideaway will have two or three beds upstairs, in anticipation of many long nights. But it is also a music to experience live: two performances I saw in Europe last year were transportingly atmospheric, and Americans will have a chance to immerse themselves when the band begins its first U.S. tour next Saturday.

Rock critics have tended to describe Sigur Ros's music as a sonic transmutation of the sublimely melancholic Icelandic landscape, and while the members of the band were walking me around the nearly completed studio that night, I asked about this. They shot one another the kind of glances I imagine the Samoans must have traded whenever Margaret Mead showed up to take notes. Kjartan Sveinsson, who plays organ, piano and some guitar and also arranges the strings Sigur Ros likes to employ, took a deep breath and said, "If you are saying we would make different music if we lived in London, yes." Georg opened a door onto a stream that ran alongside the studio and said that sometimes he pictures the landscape while he plays, but I think he was feeling a little sorry for me. Finally Jonsi, who at 25 is the oldest member of the group but could pass for the youngest -- with his beanpole physique and odd sprout of hair where a widow's peak should be, he looks like a flesh-and-blood Tintin -- tried to set me straight. "We do not really like to talk about our music," he said. "Yes, your surroundings always affect you, but it is unconscious and can't be explained."

The taciturnity is very Icelandic, too. Actually, there is little about Sigur Ros that could not be said to be Icelandic, or at least recognized as such by Icelanders, who were quick to embrace not only "Ageatis Byrjun" but two new songs the band released last year in the wake of the album's success: one, a novel take on a traditional Icelandic lullaby, the other a spooky reworking of the organ theme that has been played for years on the national radio whenever deaths and funeral arrangements are announced. That these place-particular songs were appealing to Icelandic listeners at precisely a time when Sigur Ros was mesmerizing European rock sophisticates -- and major-label execs -- as an opening act for Radiohead on its big tour last summer is evidence, I think, of a globalization more complicated and more hopeful than the dark prophets of a looming imperial pop-monoculture would have us believe.

Sigur Ros is making music that's Icelandic without being folkloric and worldly without being a third-rate knockoff of the latest Big Thing from England or America. It's music that speaks of and to where it's coming from even as it resonates internationally at the far reaches of avant-rock. What makes Sigur Ros so adventurous is that the band is venturing "here" and "there."

Angels of the Un-Verse: The music of Sigur Ros is enigmatic and inscrutable. It's also uniquely Icelandic. (Jeff Sypeck, PopPolitics)
[G]ood luck figuring out what Sigur Ros is really all about; you'll sooner find a faerie on an Icelandic lava field.

Of course, the bare facts are out there on the Internet for anyone to find. Lead singer Jon Thor Birgisson, known to friends and fans alike as Jonsi, sometimes plays his guitar with a bow. The band's name means "Victory Rose," which is also the name of Jonsi's 8-year-old sister, and the title of Agaetis Byrjun means something like "a decent beginning" or "an OK start." All of Sigur Ros's recordings to date have been sung entirely in Icelandic, except for a few that may or may not have been sung in a made-up dialect known as "Hopelandic."

And the music? Earnest and ambitious, it defies easy description, but you'll find it either soul-stirring and profound or trite and pretentious, depending on your tolerance for the marriage of pop and New Age. Sigur Ros practices what has been aptly called "musical landscaping," starting with a few random aural elements and adding instrumental layers until the whole thing builds, with drowsy certainty, to a decisive crescendo. Jonsi's eerie, whispered falsetto haunts the organ-drone of songs like "svefn-g-englar" ("sleepwalkers") and overwhelms the lonely brass arrangements of "ny batteri" ("new batteries"). Songs like "olsen olsen" are positively trance-inducing, a pleasant major-key tapestry of musical optimism; you may even find yourself wanting to sing along in your own made-up Icelandic dialect. The same holds true for the album's inscrutable title track, which may be a love song, or a lullaby, or something else. Whatever it is, it's a nicely crafted little pop tune -- a decent beginning indeed.

But the languid, 21st-century lullabies of Sigur Ros strike their share of jarring notes. Sometimes the effect is stirring, such as on "staralfur" ("staring elf"), when a pretty string melody punctuated by synthesizer notes drops you into a crudely recorded acoustic guitar riff only to jolt you back into a rush of lush electronic sound. Elsewhere on the album such tricks serve only as a disappointing reminder of artifice, evidence that Sigur Ros is trying too hard to pull a heartstring or two. A ridiculous rocket-launch sound effect concludes "hjartad hamast (bamm bamm bamm)" ("the heart pounds, boom boom boom"), while the lonely, unsubtle wind blowing throughout "vidrar vel til loftarasa" ("good weather for airstrikes") is better suited to a 1980s anti-war pop-song than a breezy Icelandic anthem. Many of the songs of Agaetis Byrjun will lodge in the back of your mind for days like a tiny lava pebble, prompting you to return for another listen long after you think you've made up your mind about this strange album. "avalon," an unnecessary four minutes of barely audible droning that ends the album, is not likely to be among them.

Strange? Us?: They sing in a made-up language, avoid song titles and make Tommy Lee curl up in a ball because he likes them so much. What's weird about that, Sigur Ros ask (Dorian Lynskey, August 26, 2005, The Guardian)
Sigur Ros's immense, uncategorisable sound, fronted by Birgisson's unearthly falsetto, is undoubtedly evocative - but nobody can agree on what exactly it evokes. They have a tendency to make critics lose their heads and babble on about glaciers and volcanoes, or, in one particularly purple instance, "the sound of God weeping tears of gold in heaven". On the band's third album, 2002's (), they even dispensed with titles, and Birgisson sang almost entirely in Hopelandic, an imagined language he cheerfully describes as "nonsense".

On their astounding new album, Takk ... , titles are back and most of the lyrics are in Icelandic. This spirit of glasnost also animates their interviews, which were once a barren tundra of single-word answers. In 2001, one journalist came away with just three usable quotes, one of which was "Yeah, yeah". They'll still admit that, given the choice, they would never talk to the press. "It would be nice, yes, if that was possible," says guitarist and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson. "That's something I used to talk about, but I'm getting older and," he laughs, "weaker. I used to be really sceptical about these things and not really trust anybody."

But these days, if they answer a question with a shrug or a nonplussed "I suppose so," it's just because, in some respects, Sigur Ros's music is as mysterious to its composers as it is to everybody else. None of the standard inquiries - How do they write songs? What are their inspirations? What are they trying to say? - cut much ice. When I ask Birgisson, who at 30 is the band's oldest member, if Sigur Ros try to avoid being influenced by other people's music, he retorts: "No, we don't try anything. That's the key - to be as normal as possible."

Perhaps Sigur Ros only seem strange because Iceland itself is strange.

    -ESSAY: Coolest Band in the World: They’re from Iceland! (John J. Miller, September 13, 2005, National Review)

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 15, 2006 7:02 PM

I saw them live before I knew who they were and had no idea they were from Iceland. I thought they were a bit different when the guitarist immediately began playing his intrument with a violin bow (and making it sound nice, unlike Jimmy Page).

They're quite popular in Britain now - the music gets used a lot as soundtracks in TV programmes.

Recommended, definitely.

Posted by: Brit at January 16, 2006 5:02 AM

Good planetarium music.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 16, 2006 6:10 AM

Not as good as Zero 7.

Posted by: ZF at January 16, 2006 7:32 AM

Much more interesting than articles about Canada.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 16, 2006 9:53 AM

ZF: You're right about Zero 7. Tina Dico's singing on "Home" is simply mesmerising.

Posted by: Mike Morley at January 16, 2006 2:57 PM

The season ends with the championship game next Monday, and then you won't have to hear any more about the Candian Politics League for the rest of the year. (And let's hope this will be a Winter Olympics-free zone, too.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 16, 2006 3:09 PM