One of my most vivid memories is the point at which I started to listen to music. Not to hear, but to listen. Music became an active, kinetic thing, extending tendrils to the bottom of my soul, rather what came in fits and spurts through the radios of my parents’ cars.
On a tip-off from an internet message board whose users realised I liked Coldplay, I downloaded three songs by this Icelandic band called Sigur Ros from LimeWire entirely legal and reputable sources. I then completely neglected to listen to them, because what did those message board fools know? What could possibly compare to the tour de force of A Rush of Blood to the Head?
Weeks later, I found myself playing a compilation of old Sonic games on the PlayStation 2 called Sonic Mega Collection Plus while my PC idly shuffled down my selection of songs, mostly an ambient counterpoint to the Masato Nakamura’s blistering score to the games. At first it happened insidiously. It became apparent that almost ten minutes had passed with my blue companion making hardly any progress on Green Hill Zone. As Jonsi Birgisson’s plaintive vocals gradually faded away, I decided to stop everything and listen to this particular song again, ‘Svefn-g-englar’.
It was at that point I opened the box. This is how it starts; not with a whimper, but a ping. A strange sonar-like ping. For all the innovations which the song contains, it was this metronomic sound effect which pierced a hole directly into my brain and remains there to this day. It is just one of many clever tricks in ‘Svefn-g-englar’, along with the customary washes of echo and reverb, which give the perception that the music possesses so much space. For the young me, though, the space was not just limited to production trickery – the fact that this song was so long counted for an awful lot. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now identify just how jarring a change that was in terms of musical engagement. Popular music, especially during my formative years during the late 1990s, was all about instant gratification, in its music and its entire culture. It comes, sticks around for four minutes while narrating some moment of instant fulfilment, and then quickly leaves you behind again, only for the next source of titillation to arrive in its place. The ‘Svefn-g-englar’ EP was released in the UK on 27 September 1999. I didn’t discover it until 5 years later, but it’s still helpful to compare, given that it emerged into the musical world which was at that time bombarding me.
I’ve attached a screenshot of the chart for that week and while it isn’t shocking that the songs aren’t, y’know, spectacular, I was still quite surprised at just how many of them ticked the same boxes. Tail end of the Ibiza season – music videos with half-dressed women – dreams of riding pristine cars around the Balearic landscape – wonderful! It’s like you’re actually there. I appreciate that club music comes from a much different context, and that it DOES mean something to people who enjoyed excursions there – but not by the time it’s diffused into the provinces, where that weird Europoppy piano sound means very little when you’re watching the grey mass of your village through your bedroom window, made murky by autumn rain once more.
This was different. Instead of music becoming a cipher for a culture founded on ease and gratification, something you buy in HMV the same day you go into town to watch a bad film and treat yourself to a Yorkie bar, the sound was like some vast cathedral that encompassed everything and everyone within it. Hooks, the staple of popular music with their get-rich-quick promise, were replaced with Jonsi’s titanic eruption of texture from the guitar. And for all that, the strength of Sigur Ros’ composition is all the more palpable. The guitar creates the overall impression that the ground itself is shifting beneath your feet, and Jonsi’s voice is not so much a voice as a primordial vagitus, with the rhythm section forming a membrane for everything to travel through.
Of course, depicting such Damascene moments necessitates a measure of fictionalisation. I was not completely ignorant of the world of alternative music; I had heard a few decent alternative bands blasting from my older sister’s stereo, and I had always had a superficial fondness for Radiohead (I can’t tell for certain, but I think I managed to catch some of their Glastonbury 97 performance on the TV, albeit distantly – ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ in particular just sounds too familiar to some distant corner of my memory), but the arch of Jonsi’s fragile falsetto harmonised with what I realised I truly appreciated in Thom Yorke’s own style of singing. The femininity associated with falsetto was a wonderful corrective to the stratified gender roles which our society demands of young people, and which is further thrust on them by popular culture. Rock music was persistently tinged post-Oasis with an insufferable reliance on phallic guitar playing and a general set of tropes which could be placed under the sub-category of ‘blokiness’. The lack of posturing became my own personal act of rebellion, to try and deliberately reject surrogate gender codes that were inherent to the music that was forced down our throats. I like to think that the feeling is something each generation receives as its own particular gift, from David Bowie putting his arm around Mick Ronson’s shoulder in his Top of the Tops performance of ‘Starman’, or Morrissey wielding a bunch of gladioli on the same programme.
Also contained under this umbrella was an arrogant dismissal of anything more ambitious as ‘intellectual’, a criticism which continues to baffle me to this day. I can’t remember where I read it, and more worryingly I can’t find a source, but it was probably in another of Noel Gallagher’s rentaquote interviews that he said words to the effect of there being no such thing as ‘interesting’ music; only good or bad tunes. ‘Svefn-g-englar’ proved just how wrong he was – it surpassed any immediate valuation of mine as a good or a bad tune. It was just far too open, too insistent on creating an aural space outside of rock pretension, and moreover quite ambiguous with such an alien character and texture. I discovered the song in my first year of secondary school and I can distinctly remember how every day for a number of months I would rush home, waiting impatiently through the last lessons of the day, through the crawling bus journey (MP3 players being a rare commodity at that time), then the lift from the bus stop back home before I could run upstairs, fire up my 246MB RAM wonder, and try to connect with this abyssal 10 minute space, to try and uncover its mysteries while simultaneously enjoying its overpowering mellifluence, like being smothered by a feather duvet on a winter’s evening.
Look at these insufferables.
I mentioned that sonar style ping earlier, and another clever aspect of it is the way in which it interacts with Kjartan Sveinsson playing the other notes on the keyboard – there is no real discrepancy between music and sound. This is also something that had unrealised precedent, with another earlier musical memory. One of the first CDs I can remember hearing in any form was a compilation that my mum bought and listened to quite frequently when we moved into a new house, when I was 4. It took me ages to track down exactly which CD it was, but here it is. Pretty nice collection of songs (I had an early infatuation with ‘Love Shack’), but the bizarre thing was my parents continued to play this CD even though it was irretrievably scratched about 2/3 of the way through. Thus, when it got to that point the music would compress until the CD could only issue CHUNKKACHUNKCRUNCH sounds. I was at once in awe of, and terrified of, this sudden flip from music as a delicately crafted sound space to an infernal degradation, which placed the two phenomena in balance in my head – either was just as intriguing as the other. I’m not saying that my mum is a secret genius of the avant-garde, but she may have beaten William Basinski to it without even realising!
With so much reverb in the mix, and the guitar being used in such an unconventional manner, Sigur Ros soften that divide between music and sound. All recorded music is an illusion to some extent, but Sigur Ros grant the impression that this is not music that was made in a studio that was booked out for a certain amount of man hours; rather it is from, and of, the landscape it exists within. I do not want to be one of the legion who have commented wistfully on glaciers and volcanoes without ever having visited Iceland, so I will refrain from the temptation. The way I see it, ‘Svefn-g-englar’ is not a song that makes me want to pick up an instrument and head to Abbey Road in search of fortune. It encourages me to look around at my immediate space, and within myself, in order to delineate the power, beauty, and fear, that resides there. Fear should be emphasised as Sigur Ros’ recent releases have confirmed the dualism between antagonism and harmony that resides at the centre of their music – instead of faeries and elves in a wooded enclave, think mephits and banshees pulling at your limbs in a murky grotto – within Svefn-g-englar, this comes at roughly the 6:10 mark, as an abrupt drum full and chord change lead the song into new territory, before eventually fading out with that enigmatic ‘Tjuuuuuuuu’.
Innocence of youth gives way to experience of adulthood, and having had the opportunity to revolve the song in my head over some years has led me to conjecture other possibilities for that one particular sonar inspired sound effect. Iceland had an intriguing role within the Cold War, affiliated with the USA through their use of Keflavik air base (something which led to popular protest from the native population), while maintaining trade and geographical ties with the Soviet Union, whose submarines stalked the Arctic Circle. The USA’s anti-submarine alert system SOSUS was based around that area, anchored between Greenland, Iceland, and the northern British Isles. The blips therefore communicate that sense of emptiness and space I alluded to earlier, but can be seen to do so from a more historically engaged angle than Sigur Ros are ordinarily given credit for. Iceland is not the primitive, folkic, quaint ‘other’ that many reviews paint it as, but a landmass caught in the crosshairs of an insidious and intrusive conflict for much of its recent history. The earthiness of the guitar is geological in scale, standing monumental as those external blips mechanically search for the life that Jonsi breathes into the piece. The land emerges triumphantly from the tension of recent history, standing on its own terms. This is all conjectural on my part, so I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has spent time on the island and would be better qualified to comment on such a matter.
Similarly, I am always interested in hearing stories of people’s own personal revelations into the possibilities of art in any medium, the moment at which it stops becoming one of many peripheral things in your consciousness and becomes the essential. Do get in touch.