Sigur Rós

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Reykjavík’s Sigur Rós are known internationally for their pioneering cosmic post-rock creations. Combining ambient electronics, orchestral and rock instruments, and the mournful falsetto of leader Jónsi, all to varying and slowly shifting degrees, they emerged with the sprawling Von in 1997. A long (ongoing) succession of chart-topping releases in their native Iceland began with their follow-up breakthrough, 1999′s Ágætis Byrjun, and their gradual ascent up the charts abroad crested with their sixth album, 2012′s Valtari; it reached the Top Ten in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, and Italy while charting nearly as well across Europe. They experimented with a darker, more aggressive sound on 2013′s Kveikur, which proved to be another major hit. The next decade was limited to a few remix and soundtrack releases in addition to touring and work on side projects. Sigur Rós eventually reconvened in the studio for their eighth album, 2023′s ÁTTA, which contrasted Kveikur with its minimal drums and soaring, poignant atmospherics.
Named after a sister of one of the bandmembers, Sigur Rós (“Victory Rose”) was formed by guitarist and vocalist Jón Þór Birgisson (later known as Jónsi), bassist Georg Hólm, and drummer Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson in early 1994 while the members were teenagers. The trio’s first recorded song earned them a deal with Iceland’s Bad Taste label. Their sprawling debut LP, Von (“Hope”), was released in 1997. Although it was far from an immediate hit in Iceland (selling fewer than 400 copies in its first year), it would eventually go platinum several years later. Recycle Bin, a collection of remixes from that album, followed in 1998.
Kjartan Sveinsson joined the band on keyboards in time to record 1999′s strings-heavy Ágætis Byrjun (“Good Start”). Its snowballing acclaim eventually led them to the top of Iceland’s album chart. The single “Svefn-G-Englar” was hailed as NME’s Single of the Week in September 1999, launching a press hype steamroller in the U.K. and — to a lesser extent — in the U.S. The “Ný Batterí” single was issued in early 2000, the group’s international breakout year. British independent Fat Cat began distributing them, stretching their reach beyond Icelanders and rabid journalists. April dates in England with Godspeed You! Black Emperor were capped off by an appearance at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, and they also opened several dates of Radiohead’s European tour before year’s end. In the meantime, Gunnarsson parted ways with Sigur Rós and was quickly replaced by Orri Páll DýRason.
Sigur Rós spent the first three months of 2001 off the road, setting up their own studio and making their third album. Meanwhile, Ágætis Byrjun found a label in the U.S. and worldwide press became increasingly positive and varied; both Entertainment Weekly and The Wire ran features on the band. The group began touring again in April, playing more shows in Europe, a handful in the States, and several more in Japan throughout the remainder of the year. By the end of 2001, Ágætis Byrjun had won the Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music; it was also declared Iceland’s Best Album of the Century.
Sigur Rós’ third album, ( ), was released in 2002. The majority of the material was honed on the road prior to being recorded at Alafoss, the group’s studio located outside Reykjavík. Sung entirely in Jónsi’s made-up language of Vonlenska — also known as Hopelandic — for the first time, it featured a rawer sound in comparison to its predecessors and scaled back the extreme highs and lows that were prominent on Ágætis Byrjun. The album returned the band to the number one spot in Iceland as well as expanding their chart presence across Europe and to Australia and U.S., where it reached number 49 and 51, respectively.
Three years later, the group released 2005′s Takk..., featuring some tighter arrangements and brighter tones, and returning them to mostly Icelandic lyrics (with occasional Hopelandic thrown in). With the band’s reputation only growing, it charted even better than its predecessor, cracking the Top 30 of the Billboard 200 and reaching number 16 in the U.K. In 2007, Sigur Rós released the documentary film Heima, which chronicled the band’s tour of Iceland the previous year alongside an intimate acoustic show at a coffee shop in the small town of Borg.
Issued in 2008, their fifth album, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, found the group adding fairly straightforward pop songs to their sound alongside the traditionally epic soundscapes. It was well received and found the band continuing to climb the international charts. After Sigur Rós completed touring for the album (the final weekend of shows recorded and captured on film and then released in 2011 as Inni), they headed back to the studio but scrapped the results and went on hiatus. During this time, Jónsi launched a solo career, first collaborating with boyfriend Alex Somers (as Jónsi & Alex) on 2009′s Riceboy Sleeps, then releasing 2010′s Go under his own name. His main claim to fame, though, was recording “Sticks and Stones” for the soundtrack of How to Train Your Dragon.
Sigur Rós ended their brief hiatus in April 2010, playing a set at the Coachella Festival. In October 2011, they delivered their first live album, Inni, a document of their 2008 tour. Returning to a more atmospheric approach, their understated sixth studio album, Valtari (“Steamroller”), appeared in May of the following year. It became their fifth consecutive number one in Iceland, topped the album chart in Ireland, and reached a career-high number seven in the U.S. Quickly returning to the studio, and now working without Sveinsson, Sigur Rós took their sound in a darker, more assertive direction with their seventh album, 2013′s Kveikur. The change was approved of by fans worldwide, and it became a Top 20 hit across Europe as well as in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. After its release, they stayed busy touring but also branched out, making appearances on both the animated series The Simpsons and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
In 2017, the group collaborated with Somers on two instrumental recordings for a season four episode of Black Mirror. To coincide with their own Norður og Niður Festival in Iceland, they released the soundtrack/film production Route One the same year, as well as the Jónsi and Somers EP All Animals. Both records were issued on vinyl for Record Store Day and released on digital platforms in 2018.
In 2019, Sigur Rós celebrated the 20th anniversary of their landmark debut with a deluxe reissue of Ágætis Byrjun. In addition to the original album, the set included a 1999 concert from Íslenska Óperan and a disc of demos and rarities. The following year, the band finally released a recording of their celebrated orchestral work Odin's Raven Magic, based on a poem from the great Eddas of Icelandic medieval literature. A collaboration with composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and chanter Steindór Andersen, it premiered nearly 20 years earlier, in 2002, and has rarely been performed since. Sveinsson rejoined the lineup in early 2022 and was on board for Sigur Rós’ first world tour in nearly five years, as well for an in-progress eighth album. Produced by the band with Paul Corley (Ben Frost, Oneohtrix Point Never), the completed ÁTTA (“Eight”) arrived in June 2023, a full ten years after Kveikur. It proved a great contrast to its predecessor, full of soaring, orchestra-accompanied ambiance (by London Contemporary Orchestra) and general warmth. ~ Andy Kellman & Marcy Donelson