Two years passed since Sigur Rós' debut. By this time, the band recruited in a new keyboardist by the name of Kjartan Sveinsson and it seems to have done nothing but take the band to an even higher state of self-awareness. Even on aesthetic matters, Sigur Rós entitle their sophomore effort not in a manner to play up the irony of high expectations (à la the Stone Roses' Second Coming), but in a modest realization. This second album -- Ágætis Byrjun -- translates roughly to Good Start. So as talented as Von might have been, this time out is probably even more worthy of dramatic debut expectations. Indeed, Ágætis Byrjun pulls no punches from the start. After an introduction just this side of one of the aforementioned Stone Roses' backward beauties, the album pumps in the morning mist with "Sven-G-Englar" -- a song of such accomplished gorgeousness that one wonders why such a tiny country as Iceland can musically outperform entire continents in just a few short minutes. The rest of this full-length follows such similar quality. Extremely deep strings underpin falsetto wails from the mournfully epic ("Viðar Vel Tl Loftárasa") to the unreservedly cinematic ("Avalon"). One will constantly be waiting to hear what fascinating turns such complex musicianship will take at a moment's notice. At its best, the album seems to accomplish everything lagging post-shoegazers like Spiritualized or Chapterhouse once promised. However, at its worst, the album sometimes slides into an almost overkill of sonic structures. Take "Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)," for instance: there are so many layers of heavy strings, dense atmospherics, and fading vocals that it becomes an ineffectual mess of styles over style. As expected, though, the band's keen sense of Sturm und Drang is mostly contained within an elegant scope of melodies for the remainder of this follow-up. Rarely has a sophomore effort sounded this thick and surprising. Which means that "Good Start" might as well become of the most charming understatements to come out of a band in years.
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AllMusic Review by Dean Carlson