Attempts to describe their music and the feelings it evokes often reach for comparisons with the landscape of their Icelandic homeland – elemental, profoundly beautiful, effervescent, luminescent - the list goes on and on, and yet the band seem to have nothing quite so specific or local in mind.Their music, they say, is simply what happens when they play together – no more, no less. Or perhaps there’s something running deeper in them, and us, than they know.
The kind of instinctive understanding that this band has doesn’t happen overnight, but with the rest of the world discovering them less than two years ago it still comes as quite a shock to learn that Sigur Rós are actually approaching their ninth birthday.
The band were formed in Reykjavík in 1994 with Jón Pór Birgisson (known affectionately as Jonsi) on vocals and guitars, Georg Holm on bass and Agust Óvar Gunnarsson on drums. They took their name from Jonsi’s baby sister (in translation Sigur Rós means ‘Victory Rose’). It would take another three years for their debut album “Von” to appear on local label Smekkleysa Records and though the band’s signature elements are all immediately apparent (the epic scale of the songs, Jonsi’s ethereal vocals, the bowed guitar etc.) their music was still in fairly embryonic form.
“Von Brigdi”, or “Recycle Bin”, an album of Von remixes followed a year later and features contributions by a number of artists including Sigur Rós themselves.
The band’s line-up expanded with the addition of Kjartan (Kjarri) Sveinsson on keyboards soon after, and they set about writing and recording their second studio album, the appropriately titled Ágætis Byrjún (“A Good Beginning”). It’s here that the Sigur Rós story really starts in earnest as one by one, things seemed to fall almost magically into place for them.
Initially released in Iceland in June 1999 (again by Smekkleysa) Ágætis Byrjún was a giant leap forward from their previous work. Suddenly they were a fully mature band making exquisite music of breathtaking originality. That kind of quality doesn’t stay a secret for very long and they were soon signed to Fat Cat records who released Svefn-G-Englar as a single throughout the rest of the world that September. Ny Batterí followed as a second single the following May and Ágætis Byrjún itself was finally released worldwide in August 2000.
The speed at which critical and public acclaim for the band snowballed during this comparatively short period can be gauged from their increasingly high profile live performances. Before the year 2000 the band had never played outside Iceland. In January, with new drummer Orri Páll Dyrason in place, they played their first non-Icelandic gig in the backroom of London’s Union Chapel. Eight months of touring later, supporting Godspeed You Black Emperor! and playing the Drifting Festival along the way, they were back at the Union Chapel as headliners. A month later and they were touring Europe with Radiohead and had Thom Yorke citing the band as an inspiration for Radiohead’s own new album. Not bad going for twelve months.
Visuals are very important to the band and as well as making inspired and award-winning videos for Ágætis Byrjún tracks Svefn-G-Englar and Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa the band contributed two tracks from the Ny Batteri single to Fredrick Thor Fredricksson film “Englar Alheimsins” (Angels Of The Universe). Continuing a charmed year for the band, the film was also extremely successful and was hailed by many critics as the best Icelandic film ever made. When shown at UK cinemas it was accompanied by the videos for Svefn-G-Englar and Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa and the band released the film’s soundtrack on their own Krúnk label.
All of this didn’t go unnoticed in the rest of the world of course, and US critical acclaim grew steadily throughout the second half of 2000, triggering a bidding war between US labels keen to release this hot new band in the States. In the end, the band chose to sign a deal with MCA records which gave them the most artistic freedom.
If 2000 might be said to be the year of Sigur Rós in Europe, 2001 was the year they were embraced by the US. Ágætis Byrjún was finally given an official American release and when the band toured there for the first time in the early part of the year, they found their reputation so strong that the vast majority of the dates sold out straight away. Still more amazing was the list of celebrities, from Brad Pitt to Beck to Bowie, keen to come to the shows or otherwise endorse them. Hollywood inevitably wanted a piece of the action and their music was used alongside that of bands such as REM for the Tom Cruise/Cameron Crowe film Vanilla Sky.
Their most important American accolade was still to come though with the award of the prestigious Shortlist prize for new music (the equivalent of the UK’s Mercury Music award). Judged by a panel including Trent Reznor, Beck, Dave Grohl and Macy Gray the band fought off far more obvious contenders such as Gorillaz, Air and the Dandy Warhols to take the laurels.
After two years of heavy touring the band retreated home to Iceland for much of the first half of 2002 in order to construct their own studio (in a converted swimming pool just outside Reykjavik) and record their new album. In the midst of all this activity they still found time to smash a few more preconceptions with the remarkable ‘Odin’s Raven Magic’.
Premiered at one of London’s most prestigious classical venues, The Barbican Hall, in April 2002 and later repeated at the Reykjavík Arts Festival a month later, this extended piece, perhaps best described as a small oratorio, is based on a lost chapter of the the Edda, the ‘bible’ of Norse mythology.
Written in collaboration with composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, with whom they had previously worked on Angels Of The Universe, Sigur Rós performed ‘Odin's’ at The Barbican alongside the London Sinfonietta Orchestra, classical choir The Sixteen and their friend Steindor Andersen, an exponent of the ancient Icelandic art of ‘rhymer’. As well as writing the bulk of the music and playing instruments ranging from samplers to Stone Marimba, the band also contributed some evocative visuals created at their new studio. It was a remarkable evening and drew extremely favourable reviews.
And so to the new album that the band have been busily writing and recording. Expectations are high and appetites keen. Every listener will have their own reaction and this one is no different. Saying as little as possible to prejudice others,I’m sure you’ll find it as singular in its own way as Ágætis Byrjún and as different again as that album was to its predecessor. The Sigur Rós story has opened a new chapter.