Ágaetis Byrjun is born in reverse: Drummer Agust's stuttering snare swishes in space; Georg Holm's bass hums like a vintage pedal synth; Kjartan Sveinsson's piano tones bleed and blip; and Jónsi, the instantly memorable voice, swirls in the cosmos. Something roars in the distance, like far-off rocket engines billowing, and then, softly ... ping ... ping ... ping. A call across the void. There's a brief moment of fuzz, then everything snaps into place. Sveinsson's organ tones are slow and meditative, the ping keeping time like breath. Jónsi runs his rosin-coated cello bow across his guitar, and a whole world spills out, as if articulating a life's worth of radiance and suffering in one transcendent groan. The track ends with the snow of a radio transmission followed by a heart beating faster and faster, another touch of flesh-and-blood on an album that so often feels celestial in origin. Slipping the bonds of his native Icelandic, Jónsi also sings in glossolalia -- Hopelandic, as the band calls it -- proving that all you really need is sound. Sound bridges cultures even as it leaves words behind. Even when we can't decipher what he's saying, we understand the emotions and identify with them. Throughout Ágaetis Byrjun, songs graze the sky and tumble to earth. They rise from incalculable trenches and crest into second sunrises. "Viõrar Vel Til Loftárasa" unfolds with elegant piano and strings, guitar shimmering like pedal steel, and ultimately cedes to the freedom of disharmony as the orchestra members play differing passages, all approaching some kind of rapture in the clash. By comparison, "Olsen Olsen" unites its brass section and piper with a full choir for a jubilant sing-along. When the murky keys of "Avalon" skulk in and we hear a clacking like the guts of a piano being plucked, it is then that we can see the other side of Ágaetis Byrjun's circle as it closes in and pulls us into the darkness.
Saturday, February 12, 2011