Sound — 10
After 50+ years of being a genre, you'd think that every sound and style that could be achieved within rock music would have been done already. Decades of refinement, plus significant sonic innovation in the '80s and '90s left little room to move forward. Hell, bands like Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, the Talking Heads, et al. Were making "futuristic music" back in the '70s. Thirty years later, there really isn't left that can be described as "forward-thinking." But Sigur Ros are not a "forward-thinking" band. Their music predates anything that could be considered "rock" - or even "alternative." They're thinking back to the age of strings, harps, piano, orchestral bombast. And it still sounds more futuristic than anything Angels And Airwaves or 30 Seconds To Mars are doing. A short intro opens the album, providing travel music for the voyage to this distant world. Once you migrate through the pings and muted organ of the first minute of "Svefn-G-Englar," you are welcomed by a massive wall of bowed guitar, sounding like a distorted whale's call harmonizing with a horn section. The twinkling piano and sweeping violin of "Staralfur," the pounding cymbals of "Ný Batterí," the melodic bassline of "Olsen Olsen," all float within a wispy atmosphere of ambient noise. And Jón Birgisson's voice, at times more instrumental than vocal, is rarely anything short of angelic. While the world of "Ágætis Byrjun" is cohesively beautiful, there's also a lot of diversity here, stylistic and emotional. The intro of "Hjarta Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)" blends jazzy keyboard and drums with bluesy harmonica and bowed guitar before morphing into a chorus of soaring strings and vocal harmonies. The blissful grandeur of the climax of "Olsen Olsen" is a sharp contrast to the dark and dramatic "Ný Batterí." The album is consistent in sound, yet holistically presents a wide spectrum of emotion.
Lyrics — 9
Quick point - unless you have an Icelandic dictionary lying about your house (or are from Iceland, of course), you're just simply not going to understand the lyrics on this album. Thankfully, you don't really need to. Jónsi Birgisson's voice is just another instrument here, and it's probably the most potent weapon in their arsenal. His falsetto soars on "Ný Batterí" and "Olsen Olsen." On the latter he sings in his trademark gibberish language of Vonlenska ("Hopelandic"). The vocals on "Svefn-N-Englar" are so beautifully out-of-this-world that you'll wonder if they're even human, and he particularly outdoes himself on "Ný Batterí" and "Olsen Olsen." Even when you can't understand him, Birgisson carries so much emotion that you'll need no further explanation.
Overall Impression — 10
"Ágætis Byrjun" is definitive proof that it is possible to look back and move forward. Here, Sigur Ros take classical ideas and instruments and make something startlingly new and fresh, winding up with what remains, even against "Takk..." and "( )," their best album. The album packs so many emotions, sounds, experiences and other bits of life into it's 72 minutes that it's really it's own world - and an expansive one at that. This is music at it's largest and purest. Words on a page cannot do it justice - you have to hear "Ágætis Byrjun" for yourself.