Looking back at the achingly pretentious, yet unquestionably brilliant album by the Icelandic experimenters.
U2-sized in their native Iceland, hailed as “the most important band in the world” by Time magazine, and the preferred boudoir soundtrack of Mötley Crüe hellraiser Tommy Lee, Sigur Ros were, at the turn of the century, a bona fide phenomenon. Their 2000 album Agaetis Byrjun – seventy-plus minutes of glacial rock epics sung largely in Icelandic – became a cult of Jim Jones-esque devotional intensity, and their live shows were the closest thing to a true religious experience that 2000s rock music had to offer. So it’s refreshing that in 2002, with the cult of fame and celebrity at its loathsome peak, a band so clearly poised on the edge of unlikely mega-stardom could take a step back, retreat into the shadows and release an album as superficially inaccessible as ( ).
No title, no sleevenotes, no song titles, and lyrics sung in a made-up language called Hopelandic, ( ) is very clearly presented as a piece of art rather than just another album. Fans were invited to fill in the blank pages of the CD booklet and offer their interpretation of the lyrics to the band’s website, where they would be subjected to computer analysis and the most commonly recurring phrases displayed on the site as the official lyrics. Precious? Pretentious? If you like, but in a music scene more obsessed than ever with fashion and personality, it was (and is) rare for a band to let the music breathe to such an extent, to allow the listener to experience their songs with no sense of context, with no signifiers or suggested meanings whatsoever.
( ) is divided into two very different halves, separated by 30 seconds of silence. It can either be seen as one long piece, beginning quietly and gradually building and building to a climax, as two separate pieces, one hushed and devotional, one dark and menacing, or as eight individual tracks, each with a life and identity of its own. Or, like me, you can listen to it again and again and try each interpretation and get something different out of it each time. It’s genuinely that good.
Track one sets the tone for the first half, based on a spectral, repeated piano melody, disembodied voices drifting in and out of the mix before Jonsi’s desolate vocal casts a spell that holds you for the next 70 minutes. With its lack of conventional rock song structure, its emphasis on recurring motifs and lyrical phrasing, and its almost choral vocals, much of the first half is closer to classical music than the more accessible likes of the previous album’s Staralfur and Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa, particularly the hushed church organ on track three and the beautiful piano break in track four, which leads into the ‘interval’ on an optimistic note.
The second half of ( ) is somewhat more conventional, four very dark pieces that could almost sit comfortably on one of The Cure’s more sombre albums (Disintegration or Bloodflowers, for example). Where the first half of the album is melancholy but also comforting, the mood here is one of despair and even, on occasions, violence. Track 5, with its eerie organ and funereal beat, leads gradually into the almost tribal intro to track six, which, with its sudden surges, prepares the listener for the gathering tension of track seven (in which, for once, the band almost lose their way and drift into Pink Floyd territory), before the album comes to a howling conclusion of feedback and crashing percussion on track eight (originally and amusingly titled Pop Song). You’re left staring at the speakers in awe before reaching straight for the play button again, to listen out for sounds or nuances you might’ve missed last time around.
A very different beast from Agaetis Byrjun then, ( ) was good news for those who feared that Sigur Ros’s increasing fame might dilute their carefully-maintained mystique. This is not background music; it demands concentration and time on the part of the listener, but the rewards are immense. Quite simply stunning.
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