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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Greatest Album Ever Recorded (#2 in a series)

Back in undergrad, I took a music appreciation module that was centered around the theory that the most worthwhile quality music can have is to evoke an emotional response in the listener. Our quest to locate and quantify evocative music led us to various genres of music, and the effect that certain instruments, keys and chords seem to have on the human brain (i.e. why do those swelling strings in the movie soundtrack make us tear up? And why does the clarinet make me want to swing my hips?)

Noticing that you're being manipulated can completely destroy the experience however... so subtlety becomes critical if you're creating music for a sophisticated cochlea. This is one of the reasons I've had my beef with overtly "emo" bands. I don't see anything wrong with conveying depressed emotions (sadness, angst, loneliness, ennui, disillusionment) but too often they feel commercial and skin-deep. When a band can convey sadness and beauty in a way I find compelling, I treasure the listening experience.

Enter Sigur Ros's record Ágætis Byrjun. Sigur Ros are an Icelandic group creating avant rock compositions bubbling over with epic orchestral flavor and with unusual attention paid to the minute details of sound sculpture. They demonstrate the same kind of innovative musicianship (exploring the timbre of their instruments and pulling together sound collages) that Radiohead's OK Computer release blew me away with. This record feels every bit as ambitious as Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon... with just a tad more sincerity and less hallucinocentric pretension.

Ágætis Byrjun (translated: "An Alright Start") was their first release to get major label pimpage to the international market. They have followed this up with a few more full length releases and some oddities, EPs and collaborations.

Many of their tracks feature lyrics sung in an invented language that's been dubbed "Vonlenska" or "Hopelandic". It's similar to the nonsensical syllables of scat in jazz music... but it reflects an entirely different aesthetic here. Hopelandic is composed of sounds that work within the emotive structure of Sigur Ros's compositions. Their website once encouraged people to submit their interpretations of these nonsense lyrics... generating countless fascinating poetic "translations" of what the song conveyed to each subjective listener. I've never bothered to read the translations of those tracks that do have intended meanings. I prefer to turn the verbal part of my brain off when listening to their CDs. The fact that the band has also opted for this path with its gibberish vocals strikes me as completely awesome.

The tracks themselves:

Intro -1:36
Simple and elegant... Backmasked vocals introduce the falsetto style of the lead vocalist. Gives the listener a brief chance to acclimate to their vibe.

Svefn-g-englar [Sleepwalkers] – 10:04
"Official" band-made video

The huge opening salvo track... gently drops a sonar ping into our consciousness, then brings on waves of their signature electric guitar sound (using a cello bow.) At some point I remind myself that the Icelandic vocals aren't actually saying "It's you!" The CD version of this track (not featured in the video above) ends with a remarkable little heart beat (lub-dub) drum pattern that transforms as it escalates and then is snuffed out like a candle before we move to the next masterpiece.

Starálfur [Staring Elf] – 6:48

Fan-made video using a shortened mix of the song

(Listening notes refer to the full version of this track, not the above video.)
Keyboards come in front and center, bolstered with lovely strings, then yielding to the vocalist. At 2:55, the strings disappear and are replaced by strums of a tinny, unplugged electric guitar (one of my favorite little moments in the album.) This is followed by grand fireworks explosions of percussion (or perhaps the beats are huge boulders falling into a deep mountain lake?) which, in turn, yields to a bouncy Beatles-esque string melody at 4:10. Then resolution as the gentle strings and vocals return.

Flugufrelsarinn [The Fly's Saviour] – 7:49
Fan-made video

Something that sounds like an old school pump organ lays down a bass line. Then we hear the tidal ebb and flow with the bowed guitar. It drifts away and returns occasionally to bring emotional weight to the next line of vocals. I imagine the singer is my therapy client, telling me something vitally important about his childhood, choosing each word with precision.

Ný batteri [New Batteries] – 8:10

Muted brass opens the track, like mewling seals on a birthing beach. Pan back reveals a craggy stretch of wind-blown sea shore. Then the welcome debut of an electric bass guitar line like gulls in flight. Drums appear and buffet our ship at the 4:36 mark. Then 6:13 is a defiant swell of vocals and brass perfectly woven into that bassline. The resolution clicks and creaks with the industrial sounds of nautical pulleys and rigging.

Hjartað hamast [The Heart Pounds] – 7:11

Urgent and tense, with vocals that breath intimately into my ear. Piano comes in to dovetail with the bassline... brilliant sense of composition that straddles pop and neoclassical. Strings (and a touch of harmonica?) come in to delineate the thump-thump-thump rhythm. Some smokey wisps of violin and piano spiral upward until we are overtaken by a wash of white noise.

Viðrar vel til loftárása [Good Weather for an Airstrike] – 10:17

A track that quietly meanders its way into the most memorable piano melody on the album (starting at the 1:30 mark, switching gears at 3:00, and again at 4:00.) Some vocals come in at 4:50 but stay in the backseat. The piano is clearly driving this vehicle. The last two minutes build up to a crescendo of orchestra pit mayhem. This song sets the foundations for the style of their next two major albums, which increasingly embrace the Godspeed You Black Emperor school of 10+ minute epic compositions, heavy use of a full orchestra and a tendency to build up from minimalism into a neoclassical frenzy.

Olsen Olsen – 8:03

One of the tracks featuring "Hopelandic" vocals, they are run through echo and distortion and overlaid with gorgeous complexity. Then at 2:25, my second favorite cameo of the album... a little penny whistle line dancing its medieval charms for measure or two. Later we get a full men's chorus of la-la-la-las and degeneration into improv brass solos. The track closes with the reanimation of the penny whistle melody... a minstrel skipping over the grassy fields.

Ágætis byrjun [A Good Beginning] – 7:56
Band-made acoustic version video

(Listening notes refer to the full version of this track, not the above video.)
Modestly named after the faint praise offered to the band by an early listener to this track. I enjoy the pronounced sound of fingers sliding over steel guitar strings... making their way to the next chord. This is a straightforward example of piano/guitar composition propping up the plaintive vocals.

Avalon – 4:00
Cellos swirl about, reminiscent of Gorecki's Symphony #3. An untuned acoustic bass is strummed... like lurching footsteps down an empty hall. The lights are off, the show is over. It's time to go home.



At 6/10/2009 05:43:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Yes Low Coolant, I'm aware that the baby angel on the album cover is BALD. And the next CD I'm going to review is Am I Not Your Girl? !!!

At 6/11/2009 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Jimmimoose said...

I've loved this cd from the first time I listened to it, and every time it manages to touch me deeply. I've had some life-altering realizations while listening to Sigur Ros, even without the influence of drugs.


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