It was 1999 when Sigur Rós leapt from Icelandic obscurity to international acclaim with Ágætis Byrjun, their first release outside of their homeland. Until now, their debut offering Von has largely slipped under the radar.
Until, of course, some recent high profile BBC exposure and a big bucks EMI deal has thrust them into the relative mainstream. Now, officially released for the first time in the UK, we find out exactly what they meant by calling their sophomore offering “an alright start”.
Von was conceived pre-Kjartan Sveinsson, so it is sorely lacking of his orchestral string arrangements that pack such an epic punch and is, if such a thing is possible, even more experimental than anything they have produced since.
It opens with the eponymous Sigur Rós, a profoundly unsettling soundscape of discordantly-synthesised birds and insects which might make an interesting new project for Sir David Attenborough. The atmosphere it creates is affecting, and at times genuinely disturbing, but after being dragged out formlessly for the best part of 10 minutes it soon begins to wear thin, and sadly this sore self-indulgence is to plague the rest of the album, for all its merits.
Its main problem is that it is often too preoccupied with gratuitous ambience to do justice to the often-wonderful songs that begin emerge between each meandering intro and build-up.
But that said, highlights include Hun Joro – a riot of post-rock thrash with a psychotic electronic breakdown. Leit ad Lifi is the kind of windswept barren soundscape that will become their hallmark – though this is less Planet Earth, and more some other planet altogether.
Namesake Von and penultimate track Syndir Guos (Opinberun Frelsarans) are perhaps the most accessible numbers, especially for fans of their more recent work, possessing similar poignance. Myrkur and its palindomic partner Rukrym are also worth a listen: strangely tinged with a Britpop influence. This was 1997 after all, even in Iceland.
On the whole, this is a bracing, uncompromising debut, and plays out like a psychedelic stream of conciousness, where each track sits uneasily with the next, buoying some dark undercurrents evoked by the sinister intro. It is at times hard to imagine that a band now so feted for the beatific eloquence exemplified by Takk have sprung from the mad world that their debut often inhabits.
So while Von certainly makes for interesting listening, it is never a truly enjoyable experience, and for all its ambition, it remains a decidedly adolescent offering. Its rebellion takes the form that an angst-ridden teenager’s might – by turns sensitive, moody and anarchic – whilst it struggles to come to terms with what it is that it wants to be.
But, while it falls short of being the early masterpiece that many might hope, it is a chrysalis of innovative ideas and remarkable ambitio, only one which is yet to fully unfurl. Its title is both prophetic and appropriate: ‘Von’ meaning ‘hope’. If we can take this literally, the album becomes a valuable prologue to the band’s later accomplishments. For that alone it deserves to be celebrated.