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Iceland's Sigur Ros thrives on its mystery

Invented language, untitled albums: It's more than just ‘different’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sigur Ros is not easy to describe.

In their 12 years together, the Icelandic band has left hordes of journalists in its wake. A sampling of the graveyard of well-intended, overwrought metaphors yields phrases like: “a fairy-tale explosion of unhinged elemental majesty,” or “the sound of God weeping tears of gold in heaven.”

The band doesn’t do much to help. They sing in either Icelandic or an invented language dubbed “Hopelandic.” Their third album wasn’t titled, but is known as “()” for the large parentheses on the cover. None of the songs had names.

Yes, Sigur Ros likes to let the music do the talking.

“It’s kind of a selfish thing,” says singer Jon Thor (“Jonsi”) Birgisson. “You make music for yourself to make you feel good. It’s like a great bonus when people like it too. I think people appreciate it when you do something different and approach music from different angles.”

Despite their absurd commercial deficiencies, Sigur Ros’ fourth album, “Takk...,” can be found on the Billboard charts (a respectable 57,000 copies sold in three weeks). But beyond record sales, their majestic, ethereal sound has inspired bands from Radiohead to Metallica.

“They sound like they’re from another planet,” says Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. “It turns out it was Iceland.”

Birgisson, bassist Georg Holm and drummer Agust formed the band as teenagers in Reykjavik in 1994. Kjartan Sveinsson soon joined on keyboards and Agust was later replaced by Orri Pall Dyrason. All had come from what Birgisson calls “grungy-rock bands.”

Named after Birgisson’s little sister, Sigurros, or “victory rose,” the band released its debut, “Von,” locally. Their first proper album — and the one that brought them worldwide attention — was 1999’s “Agaetis Byrjun” (“Good Start”).

Supported by lush string arrangements, the atmospheric melodies seemed to evoke the cold beauty of Iceland itself, even to those who had never been there. Over twinkling preludes and throbbing climaxes, Birgisson used his voice like an instrument — and his guitar like a violin.

Agust had given a violin bow to Holm as a Christmas gift. Birgisson, though, picked it up and used it to play his electric guitar — mainly bowing the low E string. In concert, the shy, rail-thin Birgisson saws back and forth, picking up layers of echo-y overtones.

“It actually takes a lot of time to get the hang of it,” he says. “It’s like an untamed horse, it’s so hard to control sometimes.”

For “Takk...,” the band wanted to keep the songs fresh as opposed to “(),” which they had toured extensively beforehand. With just two songs going into the studio (a converted swimming pool), they spent 22 months working on the album.

“It works for us because we like to write something and let it sit and must a bit,” Birgisson says.

Words? What words?While “()” was sung in no particular language, “Takk...” is again in Icelandic, but the band still considers the “lyrics” irrelevant — a distant second to the natural emotions of the music.

“It’s really open to interpretation,” says Birgisson, who speaks with a thick Icelandic accent (think Bjork). “There’s only like 300,000 people that understand Icelandic.”

When Sigur Ros first set out, they said they were going to change music. In some sense, they have. The band could be credited for much of the inspiration behind Radiohead’s sonic explorations starting with “Kid A.” (The groups collaborated in 2003 with choreographer Merce Cunningham, scoring a dance performance.)

The music Web site doesn’t even know what Sigur Ros has influenced, but leaves the door wide open, calling them “pre-whatever comes this century.”

“At that time, I think we were serious,” Birgisson says of their hopes to “change music.” “But now, when you’ve gone so far and you look back, you see how this crazy industry works and you kind of just want to go home. But we’re still at it.”

Now, Sigur Ros feels only gratitude — “Takk” translates as “thank you.”

“It’s kind of crazy — it’s been 12 years!” Birgisson says. “I think it makes you realize how important it is, so you just try to take care of it as much as possible.”

At a recent concert, during the quiet denouement of “Svefn g englar,” an arresting image is illuminated on the black backdrop behind the band: lit in white silhouette, a flock of birds perches on a sagging telephone wire. Wings flapping in slow motion, glowing birds alight gracefully as others fly off.

That image, as much as anything, describes Sigur Ros.