Back in 1999, the year Sigur Rós released their international breakthrough, Agaetis Byrjun, Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson wrote the following mission statement on his band’s website: “We are not a band, we are music … 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.” As we all know, that kind of overblown arrogance isn’t unusual in the pop music mainstream. (Among other quotable tidbits, Kanye West recently told W Magazine, “I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix.’”) Still, that sort of sentiment felt awfully strange coming from the mild-mannered frontman of an obscure Icelandic post-rock band.
During a recent Q+A — five studio albums and 14 years after the fact — Spin presented Birgisson with that quote. He responded with laughter, reflecting on his band’s formative years with a nostalgic glow. “You’re young and full of energy and have this cockiness,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
And Agaetis Byrjun’s sprawling majesty warranted such cockiness. Arriving two years after the tentative ambient soundscapes of Von, Agaetis cemented the band’s sonic trademarks and signaled a jaw-dropping creative re-birth. Over lush orchestrations, Georg Hólm’s whale-moan bass, and Kjartan Sveinsson’s ornate keyboards, we meet Birgisson — singing in an ethereal falsetto, sawing at his electric guitar with a cello bow (a la Jimmy Page) to conjure black-magic drones. Dumbfounded, critics searched for an easy comparison — lumping the band with acts like Mogwai and Gospeed You! Black Emperor in the “post-rock” scene — even though this sound was clearly unlike anything they’d ever heard. When all else failed, they used Icelandic imagery as descriptors, comparing Birgisson’s guitar tone to a drifting, gargantuan glacier. And when coherent sentences failed, they simply gushed: “They sound like god weeping tears of gold in heaven,” wrote Melody Maker.
But most fans wouldn’t argue with that description. For many (myself included), the Sigur Rós live show is a transportive, communal experience, a sort of secular church service — instead of the Holy Spirit, we’re moved by the band’s intangible force, their delicate balancing act of violent aggression and hypnotic respite. It hardly matters whether Birgisson’s singing in gibberish (critics dubbed this approach “Hopelandic”) or his native Icelandic — at a Sigur Rós show, we’re all speaking in tongues.
The band’s recorded output is equally revered — most Sigur Rós diehards remember our “first time” with misty eyes and goosebumps. I described mine in this Boston Phoenix review of the live album Inni: “The first time I ever listened to Sigur Rós — I mean, really listened to Sigur Rós — I was on the toilet, strapped into my headphones, picking apart the liner notes to their landmark Agaetis Byrjun like I’d discovered a holy relic. I cried — on the toilet.”
Inevitably, the band’s exotic mystique has shrunk through time and exposure. On their subsequent five albums (from the moody, textural ( ) to their brighter, more eclectic commercial break-outs Takk… and Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust), they emerged as arguably the most visible and influential Icelandic band of all-time, selling hoards of albums and packing stadium gigs. These days, “Sigur Rós-y” is used as an adjective. Their influence is massive, almost daunting — you can trace their sound from post-metal to indie-rock, from Radiohead to fucking Coldplay. It’s hard to believe the same guy who co-wrote the spine-tingling “Svefn-g-englar” could feasibly write a song for the How To Tame Your Dragon soundtrack.
But Sigur Rós have evolved. This isn’t the same band who created Agaetis Byrjun — they’re no longer the earnestly cocky youngsters who wrote that breathless website mission statement all those years ago. They’ve evolved, matured, grown more accessible — discovered pop, electronica, English. And we Sigur Rós disciples have been along for every second of this unlikely ride through brilliance. To celebrate this month’s release of Kveikur, their seventh studio album, let’s explore the highs and lows (Let’s admit it: It’s mostly highs) of the band’s catalog, from worst to best.
Start the Countdown here.