Sigur Rós

Von

(Bad Taste/One Little Indian; 1997/2004)

By Matt Stephens | 19 September 2007

I’d imagine that, as a country, Iceland must feel like something of an albatross to its artists. Virtually every piece ever written about Bjork features an obligatory introductory paragraph discussing how the singularity and starkness of her homeland has helped generate those same qualities in her music. While the argument is undoubtedly a valid one, it’s become something of a cliché; Bjork or Mum or Sigur Rós’s creative debt to the barren geography and eccentric temperament of their country is as much a truism as the Strokes’ debt to the Velvet Underground. Tiresome though it may be, the comparison should be taken as something of a compliment: it acknowledges, in effect, that Icelandic artists sound like no one else.

Certainly no one had heard anything quite like Sigur Rós’s Agaetis Byrjun when it was released Stateside in 2001; while it married ethereal soundscapes not unlike those heard on Loveless (1991) or Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997) with conventional post-rock song structures, the group’s hushed bombast, wraithlike (and possibly gibberish) vocals and extra-terrestrial delicacy was really like nothing that came before it. If its follow-up, the frustratingly-titled ( ), wasn’t quite as arresting, it was because it couldn’t possibly have been; lightning never strikes in the same place twice, and no amount of studio gestation could help the band regenerate the shock of the new. In short, it is almost impossible to imagine Sigur Rós will ever in the future make a record as wonderful as Agætis Byrjun. And, as we learn now, they certainly didn’t do so beforehand.

Von, released in Iceland in 1997 and heretofore unavailable in North America, is interesting only in the way it demonstrates the genius of Agætis Byrjun in its embryonic form. Though it more than matches its follow-up’s bluster and pomposity, the album is far more emotionally reserved, the sound of a young band so eager to make a Big Statement that they end up saying nothing at all. Here, the band’s pretensions sound stale and uninvolving, making the record of interest only to the wealthiest and most dedicated of Sigur Rós’s growing cult.

The album kills its momentum before it creates any: the eponymous opening track is an excruciating mess of wind chimes, toneless synthesizers, and distant screams, the kind of experiment that might be tolerable if it lasted for 90 seconds but which, at nearly 10 minutes, tests patience and sanity. It is followed by “Dogun,” arguably the album’s finest moment, which meshes droning violins with distant, multi-tracked vocals to startling effect; though more ambient and subdued than most of Agaetis, the song certainly points in the direction of that record’s ghostly beauty. The band finds its footing sporadically throughout, as on the dynamic stomp of “Hun Jora” and the gorgeous middle-section of “Hafsol.” On the whole, though, too much of Von’s 71 minutes is wasted on aimless atmospherics, intros and build-ups so tedious that they detract considerably from the often electrifying songs they surround.

While it’s inspiring to hear a band indulge its ambitions so early in the game, the majority of Von falls flat. What it lacks is Agaetis’ singularity of purpose, as well as its understanding that atmosphere should be an aesthetic by-product of songcraft and not the other way around. Looking at it positively, it demonstrates that Sigur Rós is a band capable of learning from its mistakes, and one unlikely to rest on its laurels. But ultimately, the album is of little more than archival value, and does nothing to add to the legacy of either of its follow-ups. Like all Icelandic music, it still sounds like no one else before or since, but in the case of Von, that’s something of a relief.