Essential albums: Sigur Ros

A four-piece rock band centering around guitarist and vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson, Sigur Ros' epic sound is progressive rock of the spacey variety. At their most atmospheric they're one of the most distinctive ambient rock acts since the early Pink Floyd and the original cosmic German bands of the 1970's.

Sigur Rós

country of origin:

Ambient rock, progressive rock, shoegaze, soundscape, spacerock

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Ágætis Byrjun (1999, Fat Cat Records)
  • ( ) (2002, Fat Cat Records)
  • Valtari (2012, XL Recordings)

Reviewed by Mike G

Imagine a moodier, darker, more psychedelic variation of Radiohead circa OK Computer (1996) and you have a starting point for the music of Icelandic band Sigur Rós. A four-piece rock band (briefly a three-piece) centering around guitarist and vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson, their epic sound is progressive rock of the spacey variety. At their most atmospheric they're one of the most distinctive ambient rock acts since early Pink Floyd and the original cosmic German bands of the 1970's.

Sigur Rós has put mood and atmosphere - not to mention artistic pretensions - back into rock in a big way and enjoyed surprising commercial success. The lashings of hype and critical praise that greeted the first singles from the breakthrough second album Ágætis Byrjun (1999) may have been overkill - it was mainly the UK music press, after all - but that album is nonetheless an ideal place to start for newcomers. At this point in their career the band members themselves were hardly bashful, either, infamously stating: "We do not intend to become superstars or millionaires. We are simply gonna change music forever, and the way people think about music." Joke or not, it's hard not to admire such a bold restatement of that good old prog rock spirit.

After a disorientating intro with noise and backward vocal effects, Ágætis Byrjun's second track "Svefn-g-englar" announces that Sigur Rós has landed: a spacerock band for the 21st century with an odd, esoteric style, casting its songs in reverbant spaces and long slow-motion arcs and anchored by a truly unique vocalist in Birgisson. His otherworldly, androgynous singing is often astonishing to hear. True to to the essence of any ambient rock, it's the sound that matters - the way his voice grips you, caresses you, tears your heart out - rather than any actual words you might be able to discern amid the band's sonic swirl. And it's Birgisson's, ahem, vocal stylings that will either make or break you, dear listener, because if his singing easily irritates you - and it does a good many people - then all is lost. Not that the band doesn't come up with brilliant instrumentals occasionally, but his voice has always hovered somewhere near the centre of the Sigur Rós universe.

The band's third album ( ) from 2002, identified by nothing but a pair of parentheses, captures the quartet at the absolute peak of its powers. The opening "Vaka" has a hymn-like reverence with churchy organ and sad piano that echoes moodier 4AD Records acts like This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins, ending with layered vocals that sound like mewing cats. The instrumental "Samskeyti" with organ, strings, piano and arcing guitar lines again conjures that lush, ethereal 4AD sound, with the same 5-chord progression surging steadily towards a blissed-out peak before receding and dissolving into silence."The Nothing Song" is textbook Sigur Rós - a bittersweet lament that cries, surges and sighs with a fragile, heartbreaking beauty, while "Alafoss" is the band at its quietest with Birgisson cooing over an empty, foreboding landscape.

On the next couple of studio albums following the ambient rock heights of ( ), many of the band's songs became a lot more conventional, at least relatively speaking. Takk (2005) and especially Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (2008) draw on familiar pop and rock motifs, sometimes with big group vocals. Theses are albums better dissected by rock and pop critics. Ditto the more recent Kveikur (2013) which, despite its darker, grungier textures, is still essentially a vocal rock album and sounds like a cross between Radiohead and The Stone Roses.

Which leaves Valtari (2012) as the only latter-day Sigur Rós album that embraces the ambient rock qualities that make them so special. Hovering in the lands between soundscape and song, Valtari revels in that interplay of light and dark, often beginning whisper-quiet and slowly swelling into a wall of sound. The album is curious and exploratory, too, as if the band is rediscovering itself rather then revisiting past glories.

Non-essential but still of interest to ambient fans is the band's soundtrack work. Sigur Rós contributed two original tracks to the film score Angels Of The Universe (2000), and composed all of the music for Hlemmur (2002), the soundtrack album for an Icelandic TV documentary.

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