Iceland's music scene accommodates longer gestation periods and encourages an approach based on composition rather than label attention or publicity. There's something about living near the Arctic Circle that apparently foments patience; it makes you wonder whether American labels are missing out on some great Alaskan sounds. (Not that the American music biz is missing out on Iceland -- labels such as Kranky stalk capital city Reykjavik for emerging talent, kicking the tundra to see what sounds rise from the earth.) Other American investors instead buy local radio stations to broadcast our latest national anthems from the MTV proving grounds, a trend neatly summarized by Sigur Ros bass player Georg Holm, who complained to avant guardians The Wire earlier this year "Creed ... that's the band I hate the most."
Sigur Ros shares with fellow Icelander Bjork an ear for making the experimental sound pretty, but its energy is different, distinctly not manic. Its bleak, wintry soundscapes have more in common with Radiohead's Kid A, but that comparison, too -- like the more frequent one with Godspeed You Black Emperor, with whom Sigur Ros has toured -- falls short of the sweeping concert hall grandeur emanating from Agoetis Byrjun. This is a group with the sense of irony to record (for a different release, a soundtrack for Icelandic director Fredrik Thor Fridriksson's movie Angels of the Universe) a version of the music Iceland's national radio stations play under death announcements, and the unsentimental grace to make it moving.
Agoetis Byrjun, richly organic in its arrangements, often riveting in its sheer foreignness (its lyrics, when they happen to pop up, are sung in echoing, sometimes falsetto Icelandic), is first deeply moving, then haunting. It takes several listens to notice that the bulk of the album's songs are still played on, or at least centered around, guitar, bass and drums.
Icelandic culture is uniquely modern in Europe. The Danish who controlled Iceland in the eighteenth century all but erased Iceland's folk heritage, its dances and music. That explains the odd kinship between American listeners, whose political history shares ground zero on the timeline with Iceland's enforced cultural retooling, and Icelandic musicians; Iceland had a shorter distance to cover than its neighbors when catching up to American song forms. In that Wire article, guitarist Jon Por Birgisson put it simply: "We play future pop -- we hope that pop in the future is going to be like this." The future is now.