Spotlight Special: Sigur Rós - 'Ágætis byrjun'

Spotlight Special: Sigur Rós - 'Ágætis byrjun'

One of post-rock's most essential records...

It’s a tale as old as the album format itself that music is shaped by the surroundings of its creator. Whether its the industrial infrastructure of Berlin in the 70s, the laid-back surf rock stylings of mid-20th Century California, or the jazzy tones of the Deep South, throughout modern music lies a trail of albums infected by an innate sense of place and culture.

All of these above examples draw on the man-made influences and cultural backdrops that existed within those places at the time. Iceland, the land from which Sigur Rós hail, tells an altogether different story. A wilderness that often gives the impression of being largely untouched by modernisation and the trappings of Western capitalist societies, the desolate landscape of Scandinavia’s western-most country has informed some of the greatest music from the last quarter century.

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Of this plethora of artistry that has infiltrated pretty much every genre imaginable, a more quintessentially Icelandic creation than Sigur Rós’ 'Ágætis byrjun' is yet to reveal itself.

Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, let's revisit exactly what it is about this release that, to this day, makes it an essential part of alternative music’s history. From the cover art of the album, it becomes obvious that this record will offer something different to its audience. Depicting a humanoid figure, complete with umbilical cord, it portrays innocence and a lack of exterior influence that the music found within the record would go on to embody.

Just as foetuses remain protected from the outside world by their mother’s womb, so too was the singular vision of Sigur Rós safeguarded from the rest of the music scene of the time, by simply being allowed to create the album they wanted to.

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The otherworldly nature of the sounds that would exude from this record’s near seventy-two minute run time is depicted by the humanoid’s wings, a symbolism so on-the-nose, it becomes difficult to ignore. If these references and depictions weren’t obvious enough, then the English translations of the titles from the album’s biggest and best tracks - 'Svefn-g-englar', 'Starálfur', 'Flugufrelsarinn' and 'Viðrar vel til loftárása' - certainly do.

'Sleep(walk)ing Angels', 'Staring Elf', 'The Fly’s Savior' and 'Good Weather for an Airstrike' all sound like songs that are going to engulf and overwhelm their listeners. These are compositions designed to be complex and hold within them modicums of stardust, ripe for harvesting upon repeat listening, requiring obsession from their audience without explicitly requesting it.

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The bow-assisted guitars of frontman Jónsi create an earth-shattering, almost biblical tone to these compositions. Set against minimalist beats, ethereal keyboards and a vocal performance as angelic as the figure on the front of the album itself, the sounds come together to provide a rich feeling of naturalistic, organic and immensely authentic artistry.

As close to nature as music has ever really been, 'Ágætis byrjun’s endearing legacy coincides with a revival in the green movement. At a time when people are desperately trying to reverse our own historical effects on the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem, it feels only right that we now celebrate the anniversary of a record that has the unspoilt lands of Reykjavik stitched into the very fabric of its being.

An album as hypnotic and atmospherically dense as it is intricate and minimalist, 'Ágætis byrjun' remains Sigur Rós’ finest work, as well as post-rock’s most essential record from the last twenty years. It speaks to a simplistic humanism and serves as a testament to the often undervalued principles of ecological conservation whilst also blessing our ears with some of the prettiest melodies ever laid to tape.

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'Ágætis byrjun - A Good Beginning (20th Anniversary Edition)' is out now.

Words: Mike Watkins

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