Debuts by acclaimed bands usually come in one of three forms. Some are deemed classics right from the start, some rightly deserve to be forgotten, and some are overshadowed by subsequent releases, forced to exist in a neglected limbo where they are neither derided nor endorsed as anything more than a blip before the bang. The first two types are easy to deal with, since any reasonable listener can separate The Stone Roses from Pablo Honey, but it is with the third category that critics have trouble. What do you do with an album that merely invites scrutiny, while its younger siblings demand it? Are you able to listen to the debut with an objective ear, or is your experience shaded by what would come later? The answer, for most critics, is to treat the debut like a lobotomized relative, shipping it off into the memory banks and mentioning its name only when needed. After all, it’s much easier to back-handedly refer to a band’s “chrysalis” stage than to actually add anything new to the discussion of it.
Take, for example, Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island, an album whose best songs (“Song Against Sex” and “Naomi”) only predicted the genius that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea confirmed several years later. While On Avery Island is by no means a bad record, it is most definitely not on par with Aeroplane, an album whose pantheon status is cemented more firmly each year. Aeroplane is simply too monolithic to overlook, and, as a result, On Avery Island‘s tiny trove of brilliance finds itself overlooked in retrospective criticism. It may seem unfair to so easily dismiss something that fails to measure up to the immeasurable, but such is the fate of the underachieving older sibling.
Sigur Rós’s newly reissued Von (“Hope”) encounters a similar problem. When the album was released in Iceland in 1997, it became a national bestseller and introduced Sigur Rós as an inventive, daring, and inconceivably young voice in the burgeoning Icelandic music scene. The album and band, however, found scant support outside of that country at the time, and to this day little has been written about the debut except in passing mention. So the obvious question arises: Why has Von been given such limited attention? Is it that bad, or just not that good?
Well, first of all, quality is not the only issue Von has had to contend with. Living on an island obviously impeded the band’s ability to tour widely in the early years, and so word of mouth largely echoed within the confines of Iceland. To add to the problem, the album’s distribution was severely limited for whatever reason, and Von is only now being released in North America and the United Kingdom. Until this October, fans had been forced to either bid for the album on eBay or order it directly through the original label (Smekkleysa), both options being a hassle with a high price tag. But even for non-Icelandic buyers who managed to hear about the record and actually get their hands on a copy, Von proved a sprawling, ambitious, and even frustrating album whose rewards are far less immediate than the ultimate reason it has been eclipsed: 1999’s Ágaetis Byrjun.
Heralded by the sonar ping of “Svefn-G-Englar”, the band’s follow-up to Von was a post-rock epiphany rendered in liquid feedback, cinematic arrangements, and the archangelic voice of singer/guitarist Jónsi Birgisson. Influences were cited and surpassed, Thom Yorke gave his approval, and critics blew their collective wad. A feel-good story all around, except for the fact that Von seems to have been lost in the shuffle. But for what real reason? And, ultimately, to what end?
The band certainly does not make things easy for the inquiring listener, creating out of Von a murky drone of found sound and e-bow—always spread out thick and always to a sinister effect. The first song, “Sigur Rós”, is as dark as the album’s title is hopeful, and menaces the listener with almost ten minutes of tunnel echo, bowed guitar, and manic shrieks. It is at the end of this introduction that you might think to yourself two things: (1) “I cannot believe the men who made this music were barely in their twenties”, and (2) “I’m not sure if I ever want to listen to that again”. For even though it is astounding that such young musicians would even attempt to out-prog prog, “Sigur Rós” and songs like it (“Mistur”, “Veröld Ný Óg Óð”) are too ambitious for such a young group still trying to find its place. The self-confident arrogance of the early Verve singles comes to mind, but Ashcroft/McCabe and Co. were considerably more successful in equaling their ambition on record. For Sigur Rós, however, most of the long ambient spaces on Von equate to dead air, and end up as exercises in patience.
But despite the obvious missteps, there are moments here to be salvaged and savored. Many fans will likely agree that Mr. Birgisson’s voice is the most recognizable aspect of the band’s sound, if not its cornerstone, and the best songs on Von fittingly feature his androgynous wail. While the layered snippets of “Dögun” sound like some sort of post-Gregorian chant, on “Myrkur” he soars into and over a shoegazing surge that is vintage Slowdive. The latter song lasts a minute or two longer than its jarringly poppy beat should permit, but it is nevertheless a perfect demonstration of the band’s ability (even at this early stage) to approach the unearthly with the elemental tools of a rock band. Also intriguing is “Hafssól”, a 12-minute experimental epic that is almost completely distinct from the band’s current live interpretation of it. Though the newer version (which will hopefully appear on the group’s forthcoming album) is considerably more bombastic than its Von counterpart, Mr. Birgisson’s careening voice is extraordinary in both.
The undisputed peak of the album, however, occurs on “Von”, a gorgeous piece that appears to have been delicately conceived in the same amniotic echo chamber that birthed “Svefn-G-Englar” and the untitled second track from 2002’s ( ). Undoubtedly one of Sigur Rós’s finest moments to date, “Von” glides at a glacial pace, sounding as elegant as anything the band has done before or since. There is no crescendo or climax here, just a gracefully restrained arrangement of rolling drums, prayerful vocals, and bowed and acoustic guitar. It is simply captivating music that evokes empty churches and candle-lit altars, a remarkable moment of clarity amid the droning tumult that surrounds it.
So, to answer the question posed above, Von is neither that bad nor that good. It is definitely not a clunker, and despite its rough-edged and misplaced ambition it succeeds quite grandly at times. But, ultimately, would we be talking about Sigur Rós today if the band had released Von in ‘97 and then faded into the mist? Definitely not. Too often the album veers into dense, marrow-sucking sound experiments that persist past the point of fascination, and so what could otherwise be remarkable music ends up being remarkably boring. Though the title track might prove that the shadow cast by Ágaetis Byrjun is not entirely indelible, in the end Von is an average showcase of above-average ambition, and a not-so-humble beginning to what has been a transcendently humbling career.