Iceland, a land of flowing lava, glacial drifts, complete darkness, and continuous light, is a mystical country of beauty and ferocity -- not to mention extremes. So why should its music be any different? Home to acts such as Gus Gus, the Sugarcubes, and Bjork, Iceland has an affinity for creating music that's unconventional -- and none more so than its latest export, Sigur Ros. Agaetis Byrjun, an album released in Iceland two years ago and only now issued domestically, is an epic, ambient rock saga that conjures up images of barren ice fields and Nordic mythology. Sounding like a mishmash of Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Nick Drake, and Mogwai, Agaetis Byrjun is sleepy shoegazer music -- its long, slow tracks consisting of cinematic strings, enveloping horns, and the eerie soprano chants of lead singer Jon Por Birgisson.
Agaetis Byrjun picks up where the band's first album, 1997's Von, left off, blending its gloomy twee-pop into elegant, epic ballads. The disc's most accessible track, "Hyartad Hamast," begins with a Pink Floyd-like jazz keyboard and blues harmonica, which sets the stage for a massive distorted string chorus. "Svern G-Englar" uses a slow electric guitar and Birgisson's high-pitched caterwaul to yield a 10-minute dirge reminiscent of Mazzy Star. Each track on the album is sung in Icelandic, giving Birgisson's voice an alien quality in songs such as "Flugufrelsarinn," while on other tracks, angelic slide guitar and dreamy piano give a sense of inspiration and humanity. Regardless of which style you prefer, Agaetis Byrjun is an eclectic collection of sounds and atmosphere that borders on masterpiece.