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In late 1999, after the Icelandic release of their second album Ágætis byrjun in June and their U.K. EP Svefn-g-englar the following September, Sigur Rós published a communiqué on their website under the headline “Our Life… So Far.”
“Reykjavík. Iceland. Somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean,” it began. “If you thought the world was a cruel place, you should see the weather up here. Blizzards of ice and fire, earthquakes shaking the ground.”
The communiqué went on to describe the force of a hurricane, “spitting out ground and mud and breaking houses into pieces the size of a toothpick. The sound it makes is almost musical, from small hisses to roaring screams of terror. These sounds are the sounds we make from within the eye of the hurricane, or that is what we like to think anyway.”
Toward the end, the tone changed to something bolder: “Let us add one more thing about Sigur Rós. We are not a band. We are music.”
It may have been an audacious, outlandish claim, and band members today admit they winced when reminded of it. The band’s words speak of an endearing naiveté, and the willpower to make an impact, especially from the vantage point of working in relative isolation. But more importantly, the words also served to underline how the band — sorry, the music — saw itself, in the service of a higher power.
“When I listen to music, I feel passionate and dramatic,” singer-guitarist Jónsi told me when I interviewed him in 1999. “But when I play or sing, it sounds corny, but it’s like someone is singing through me.”
Jónsi had even invented a language that he called “Vonlenska,” or, in English, “Hopelandic.” It wasn’t a real language, he admitted, but a “nonsense” that allowed his voice to become another instrument rather than a vehicle for personal expressions of beliefs, feelings or stories — the sound of music, rather than a band.
When Ágætis byrjun was released outside Iceland in August 2000 (though America had to wait until May 2001), non-Icelandic/Hopelandic-speaking reviewers could only focus on the music. They tended to agree with the environmental angle — not that Ágætis byrjun resembled a hurricane, but more Iceland’s untamed landscape, marked by glacial ice and volcanic fire under vast sky views uninterrupted by treelines. Others heard something more spiritual, or celestial. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, one review in British weekly music magazine Melody Maker went as far as likening the record to “God weeping tears of gold in heaven.”
Sigur Rós made it clear at the time that they would not be joining in the game of describing themselves. “We would drive ourselves mad,” keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson said, “if we were to dive into our music, and try to say anything definite about what it is, or what the songs are about … and, it would be very boring.”
“We draw on the environment, the landscape, the people,” was Jónsi’s one concession. “It’s music from the heart.”
This is the sound and vision of Ágætis byrjun, a record coming from a tiny island where the nearest land mass is the vast, sparsely populated Greenland, where the even tinier music scene, centered in the capital Reykjavík, had only launched one international act, The Sugarcubes.
But they had Björk as a lead singer and mouthy conversationalist, and the band sung in English, while Jónsi had made no such concession, and even sung in a made-up language to avoid detection.
When schoolfriends Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson (guitar/vocals), Georg Holm (bass) and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson (drums) formed Sigur Rós in 1994, there never was a plan, according to their friend, Sveinsson, who was helping out with arrangements and live performances at the time. “At that age, you just go with it and make stuff,” he said.
Still, the core trio had key influences in mind; grunge’s progressive outliers The Smashing Pumpkins, and Spiritualized, purveyors of soulful dream-pop drenched in strings and brass. Rather than talk up post-rock instrumentalists such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai, Jónsi was more enamored by the Gaelic new age ambience of Enya, who also reflected something of Ireland’s community and landscape.
As opposed to the male energy of the prevailing rock trends — grunge, Britpop and industrial/electronica — Jónsi said he felt “very connected to [his] feminine side,” and he mostly sang in a haunting falsetto. The band’s name was “female” too, belonging to Jónsi’s sister, Sigurrós, who was born the same week that the band formed. In English, it means “Victory Rose,” which suited the band’s prototype sound, signifying strength and beauty — “and victory is a very powerful word,” Jónsi said.
Initially, the band was able to grasp power, but not victory. Sveinsson, who played guitar and flute, as well as keyboard, was the only trained musician among them, but he was only hired help at the time, and wasn’t involved in writing or recording their debut album Von (meaning “Hope”). “They didn’t know how to achieve our aims, and the songs weren’t quite there,” Sveinsson recalled in a recent interview ahead of the 2022 VMP reissue of Ágætis byrjun. “When that happens, you start taking things to extremes, so Von became much more experimental, and abstract. It didn’t reflect the band’s true potential.”
Von’s lengthy stretches of ambience were dictated more by mood and texture than melody and songwriting, and its impact in Iceland (it wasn’t released internationally) was negligible — just 300 copies sold. A remixed version (by Icelandic electronic artists) was named Vonbrigði, which had two literal meanings: “Hope Variation” and “Disappointment.” “It was a distant dream for us to release a record,” said Jónsi, “and Von was a very big step, but we knew we could do better.”
Two songs were already in contention: “Olsen Olsen” (named after a very common Danish surname) followed Jónsi, Holm and Gunnarsson’s trip to Denmark in 1995 for the annual Roskilde music festival, and “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm),” aka “The Heart Pounds (Thump Thump Thump),” signifying an accelerated heartbeat and Holm’s bassline. With renewed purpose, and Sveinsson now an official band member, Sigur Rós felt they were starting again. When a friend heard a work-in-progress and said, “þetta er ágætis byrjun” — “This is a good beginning” — the comment stuck. It gave both the work-in-progress a germ of a lyric and a title, “Ágætis byrjun,” which they would also use for the album.
The recording got off to a good start in August 1998. Sigur Rós were able to use Stúdíó Sýrland, home of the first SSL mixing desk just shipped into Iceland: “We had no idea things could sound so good,” said Sveinsson. “Most records made in Iceland sounded a bit shit.” Confidence boosted, they began to experiment with strings, brass and choirs, but reflecting Sveinsson’s classical influence more than Spiritualized’s orchestral leanings. Jónsi had already started playing his guitar with a cello bow on Von — “He hadn’t got the hang of it properly then,” reckoned Sveinsson — but was now tapping an expanded texture and range.
Another key factor was the vastly experienced British producer Ken Thomas, who had worked with glam-rock giants Queen, post-punk icons like Public Image Ltd, industrial/electronic pioneers like Einstürzende Neubauten and The Sugarcubes. He’d heard Von, tracked down Sigur Rós and demanded to produce them.
“The way [Sigur Rós] work, really, is that you have to catch a vibe with them, and the vibe will dictate what’s going to happen,” Thomas said.
“Everything is open,” Jónsi maintained. “It’s a playground, and you have to be open-minded and ready to try things out without planning. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t work, it’s crap.”
There were drawbacks. All the recording took place at night, as all four members had day jobs. Unable to finish the album in time for a pre-Christmas release — “mandatory in Iceland if you wanted to sell any records,” explained Sveinsson — they decided to postpone until June 1999.
Another setback was Gunnarsson’s shock decision to leave the band (a combination of wanting to study and lacking confidence, thinks Sveinsson) after his drum parts were completed.
Pushing on, Sveinsson and Jónsi decided to quit their jobs to commit full-time to the record — another big risk. The pair concentrated on overdubs and backing vocals, and re-recording most of the lead vocals, though eventually, only “Olsen Olsen” and the closing section of “Ágætis byrjun” were sung in Vonlenska/Hopelandic.
“Jónsi would have the final say with words, because he had to sing them, but we all chipped in,” explained Sveinsson. “Before lyrics were written, we had our own idea of what a song was about, like a pool of words or emotions that we wanted the song to portray, because of how it made us feel. Like, underwater, or a womb-like floating feeling. And then we’d write the lyrics out of that. Which meant that they were usually written at the last minute.”
Hence the opening “Svefn-g-englar” — in English, “Sleepwalkers” (but written down in this hyphenated fashion, it also means “Sleep-angels”) — resembled a somnambulist’s anthem, slowly and eerily drifting and surging for 10 minutes. “Starálfur” (aka “Staring Elf”) tapped into Iceland’s folklore of elves, trolls and fairies, as two string quartets accompanied Jónsi’s cooing vocal. A panoply of effects, including Moog synth, morse code and a soprano singer taped from the radio, served to boost the track’s Disney-esque sense of wonder.
“Starálfur” might have felt luminous, but its translated lyrics reveal a heightened state of childhood anxiety. Likewise, “Svefn-g-englar” suggested sleepwalking was a bit of a nightmare. “Flugufrelsarinn,” aka “The Fly’s Savior” — based on drummer Gunnarsson’s childhood memories, sitting by a stream to save flies from drowning — was an aching and tense drama that the English translation suggests is more about the narrator: “I cannot breathe, and I am heavier with every wave / I need a miracle.”
Jónsi never openly made connections to any of his lyrics, but he did reveal aspects of his personality in interviews. When he came out at the age of 21, he said he didn’t know a single other gay man, and subsequently fell in love with his straight friends. “I broke my heart a lot,” he said.
Something fearful also lay behind the similarly tense “Ný batterí” (“New batteries”), from its brass intro to the punctuation of a dulled cymbal crash, and a lyric which translation confesses, “I want to cut and slash myself to death.” “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm)” could be about demophobia: the lyrics translate to “Brain refuses / I continue to search / uncontrollable.” Or perhaps the lyric mirrored the track’s genesis. “It’s the odd one out on the album for us,” said Sveinsson. “We had a very hard time getting it right. We recorded Jónsi’s vocals four or five times. He was probably struggling with hearing the true quality of his voice, as we were recording with proper gear for the first time.”
Ágætis byrjun’s second 10-minute epic, “Viðrar vel til loftárása” (“A good day for an airstrike”) can be traced to a specific incident: “Hearing someone on the radio talking about the weather in relation to the NATO bombings in former Yugoslavia,” reported Sveinsson. The track’s initial mood was suitably somber; a weepy pedal steel guitar appeared after four minutes. Jónsi only started to sing after five minutes, and rather than decry the evils of war, he chose hope: “The best thing God has created is a new day.” At the eight-minute mark, his bowed guitar strings lift off in a manner that very much sounds like God weeping tears of gold in heaven, at least until an improvised coda of strings — under instruction by Sveinsson to, “freak out” — shattered the mood, in case anyone could accuse the band of over-sentimentality.
The clash between the beauty of the music’s sound and the anguished atmosphere ebbs away during Ágætis byrjun’s last three tracks. “Olsen Olsen” was stately and restrained, with Jónsi’s vocals at their most angelic before a choir shifts the dynamic to a celebratory sing-song. The title track is calm and semi-acoustic, stripped of reverb, with lyrics inspired by “the joy and disappointment around the release of Von,” said Sveinsson. The instrumental of the final track, “Avalon,” is the end of “Starálfur” slowed down. It’s a strange, downbeat way to end the record, at odds with most of what had preceded it.
Lasting two seconds short of 72 minutes, Ágætis byrjun was a seismic shift from Von: more melody, drama and tone, more accessible and anthemic. Twenty-one years after its release, it hasn’t remotely dated, lacking any relationship to grunge, industrial, ambient, pop or any other genre — not even Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai, points of comparison that cropped up in reviews. Perhaps the album’s unique DNA is simply Iceland’s environment, the community, the people.
Ágætis byrjun’s “heart” music clearly struck a nerve, starting in Iceland, where it was released by Smekkleysa (in English, “Bad Taste”), the independent label run by The Sugarcubes. The album was supported by live shows around Iceland (not just the opera house, but small villages). To everyone’s amazement, the album topped the album charts for weeks, selling 10,000 copies (a Platinum record in Iceland) in its first year. “There seemed to be this weird buzz around the band in Iceland at the time,” said Holm. “I can’t really say or put my finger on why? ... I’m not sure we even created it ourselves.”
The British independent label, FatCat, who saw one of the Sigur Rós shows in autumn 1999, signed the band for the rest of the world and started with the Svefn-g-englar EP. By the time the album was released in the U.S., the buzz was sufficient for The New York Times Magazine to put Sigur Rós on the cover. Touring with Radiohead — all committed Sigur Rós fans — “was essential,” said Holm. “It was an amazing experience for us as young boys coming out of Iceland, and then all of a sudden playing in front of 20,000 people … It definitely opened a lot of doors.”
Sigur Rós later said they were stunned by their success, but that communiqué from 1999 said otherwise. After they had launched Ágætis byrjun at Iceland’s opera house, they wrote, “We knew from that day that nothing would stop us.” Like a hurricane, in fact. The very last sentence was even bolder, even more preposterous: “We do not intend to become superstars or millionaires, we are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music. And don’t think we can’t do it, we will.”
No one outside of Sigur Rós would have imagined that they could “change music forever,” but it became true. Their music — music that balanced euphoric peaks and serene passages, and merged rock, classical and ambient influences — had a profound effect on soundtracks, advertisements and culture at large.
So, yes, Ágætis byrjun was a good start. It was followed by an album, given the symbolic title of ( ) and sung entirely in Vonlenska. This, after all, was not a band, just music. Or just, perhaps, a force of nature. And like the aftermath of a hurricane, the landscape out there is very rarely the same again.
London-based Martin Aston has written about music for over 30 years, in publications such as MOJO, Q, The Guardian, Details, BBC Online, Attitude and The Vinyl Factory. He’s also authored four books, including Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD.