June 1999: before 9/11, credit default swaps, social media toxicity, Trump and almost certain environmental disaster. That month, Napster kick-started the ‘collapse of the record industry’, but Sigur Rós were busy helping to save it.
On their website, they wrote, “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.” The Icelandic four-piece’s second album Ágætis byrjun was described by Pitchfork as “indigenous music”, comparing the band to the “Hidden People” of “Norse mythology”.
Back then, there were no trolls on Twitter to ‘cancel’ the website for its casual racism. Not that they were being negative, they crowned Sigur Rós “the first vital band of the 21st century”. So how does Ágætis byrjun (pronounced ‘owgetisbeerin’) shape up two decades later, and does it deserve a seven-disc vinyl set?
Well, Ágætis byrjun still sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. Yes, there are touches of Radiohead, Talk Talk, Smashing Pumpkins, and at one point during Viðrar Vel Til loftárása, early-70s Pink Floyd, but crucially, Jón Thor ‘Jónsi’ Birgisson’s beautiful and strange falsetto combined with his improvised language maintains a constant balance between melodic accessibility and otherworldliness. Listeners are forced to project their own meanings onto the soundscapes, which makes everything personal.
Mind you, I’m sure it’s not just this reviewer who always hears “It’s you” on the heartbreaking Svefn-g-englar. The bonus cuts are lovely but, like all extras on classic albums, they only prove that the correct choices were made in the original track selection.