This album, for me at least, is the stuff of legend. Post-Rock is a genre I haven’t explored beyond my safe space. Certainly, one of my favourite albums ever, Spiderland, along with the stuff of Talk Talk, could be credited with shaping the fundamentals of this style of music: long, instrumental passages and crescendos. The differences though, between that album and Ágætis byrjun, are so pronounced that mentioning the two in the same sentence is unfair to both – there is so little that they have in common: one is an introverted, anxious and claustrophobic journey into the mind while the other is a life-affirming trek into a beautiful world. Rather, Ágætis byrjun draws from Ambient Pop and Dream Pop, and the most obvious influence, to my ears at least, is Pygmalion – an album which came out four years before. Just compare “Svefn-g-englar” and “Blue Skied an’ Clear” and you’ll see what I mean. In contrast to that album’s Ambient pedigree, Slowdive‘s shoegaze credentials would have been all but thrown out the window were it not for some very short Wall of Sound sections as found in “Svefn-g-englar” and “Hjartað hamast (Bamm bamm bamm)”. Besides those, this album is not particularly guitar-centric – at least not in a traditional way.
And this is where it caught me completely off-guard. The intro track which consists of half reversed sounds and half sonar beeps, only introduces us to the next track, the polarizing “Svefn-g-englar” which has as many detractors as appreciators on account of Jónsi‘s high-pitched, siren-like vocals. Personally, they are not my cup of tea, and though the track is a fantastic, warm blanket which unravels in slow-motion, on account of the lazy, dreamy vocals and the aforementioned bleeps, it doesn’t really pick up until six minutes in, though it is only a fleeting moment of urgency we are offered.
One of the real highlights of the album, “Starálfur”, follows afterwards, and quite the spectacle it is. The beauty of this song cannot be stated in mere words, so stop reading and listen to it now. It is exemplary songwriting, especially instrumental-wise, with the string melodies being the result of master craftsmanship. When the horns kick in, the song goes into overdrive and the final string section is unparalleled in beauty. Also, let’s not forget the small details – the two acoustic interludes and that cheeky trumpet addition in one of the string sections. Just amazing.
Another one of my favourites, “Ný batterí”, is the most sorrowful track on the album (I think, I have no idea what the lyrics are about), courtesy of the very mournful horns in the beginning and end. The horns, combined with the bass and ambient sounds, and Jónsi’s fragile voice, create one of the most atmospheric instrumentals on this album. When the percussion kicks in, sweet baby Jesus it is perfect: it comes in hard, gives you one second to breathe and then it goes in really hard. Jónsi delivers the best vocals on the album and it all combines into the most cathartic part of the release. He could be singing about vaccines causing autism for all I care – the emotions pour in through every word and note that comes out of the instruments. The outro, returning to horns and a bit of percussion, is just as satisfying and well-crafted.
The two tracks I’ve just described are, to my ears at least, quite easily the high points of the album. The other track that gets close to this level of quality is “Hjartað hamast (Bamm bamm bamm)” which, with its unassuming funky organ and harmonica, has some of the most intense crescendos on this album – Jónsi once again serves us up with some powerful vocals which are perfectly accompanied by the strings and harp. The ending of the song, a string and keys coda, never fails to send shivers up my spine.
Now that I’ve talked about the highlights, well, it’s time to talk about the rest of the album. None of the tracks on here are particularly bland or boring (save for “Avalon” which is a Tape Music experiment that serves no purpose), and the album is a joy to listen to, though it does run out of steam from track 7 onward. Blaming my progressive loss of interest on the length of the release would be unfair, though I do feel as if some minutes could have been shaved off for the better (by removing “Avalon” for instance). Rather, I feel that the emotional intensity of said tracks is not reached in any of the other tracks – “Flugufrelsarinn”, for instance, contains less than the track preceding it when it comes to feeling, and though it does have some incredible chord changes throughout and the most solemn of crescendos, it all comes across as not being up to par with the highest moments on the LP – though the track is memorable, there are no big moments I can associate to it.
The same accusation of meandering can be levied onto “Viðrar vel til loftárása” – a track which takes a whole three minutes to pick up, though when it does it is quite a spectacle: the strings, piano and vocals are gorgeous. It is all worth in the end though – the two-minute long crescendo is majestic in every sense of the word. It is this sheer emotional impact that separates it from “Flugufrelsarinn” and the following two tracks – “Olsen Olsen” which, though revolving around a melody which exudes optimism and could be mistaken for a lost Romantic masterstroke, does not have much else going for it (except for a great-as-expected crescendo and outro), and the self-titled track which, by the time it shows up in the track listing, does not capture my attention – outside of the cute piano melody and cozily lazy vocal delivery, it is one of the least adventurous tracks on here and has no real, satisfactory denouement.
Yet, despite my complaints, each track gets a high rating from me; the truth is that, despite this album growing on me, from the very first listen I could understand the hype – this is music that, instead of an explanation, needs only a place and time. I can only see good things happen to my opinion regarding this LP.
UPDATE: It goes without saying that this album is a grower. The stretch from “Starálfur” all the way to “Viðrar vel til loftárása” is nothing short of breathtaking, but I’ve also come to terms with the fact that “Svefn-g-englar”, while pleasing, doesn’t really measure up to anything else. Oh, and “Avalon” is still a waste of space, along with the near-silent endings of some songs. Still, I like it more than I used to when I first wrote this review.
Key Tracks: “Starálfur”, “Flugufrelsarinn”, ” Ný batterí”, “Hjartað hamast (Bamm bamm bamm)”, “Viðrar vel til loftárása”
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When I’m not busy being a corporate drone, you’ll find me writing reviews and essays about music, video games, films and other nerd stuff encompassing all eras.