erasing clouds

Sigur Ros, Von

review by dave heaton

It might be a mistake to talk about an album only in relation to another, more "successful" album by that band, instead of considering it on its own terms. But it's hard not to, when listening for the first time to Sigur Ros' recently re-issued debut album Von. It's an enjoyable, unique work on its own, but it also feels like baby steps in relation to the album that came after it - 1999's ágćtis byrjun, a remarkable experimental rock album that to me still stands as a masterpiece.

Originally released in 1997, Von begins as a hazy ambient cloud in search of a form. Its first two tracks are the sounds of the haunted house in your brain, or maybe the field recordings of another planet. Rain falls, sonic waves slowly wash against the shore, stringed instruments panic and disappear, voices cry out way in the background. Then the album shifts into more song-oriented material, yet these songs are still pleasantly unconventional. Where ágćtis byrjun feels like it's of one mood overall, and 2002's ( ) feels like an album split into two basic moods, Von is fairly schizophrenic. The songs shift from Cocteau Twins-esque colorful swirls to moody, spliced-up heavy metal to soft lullabies, often within the same song. You can hear the mark of the 1980s here more than on any of their albums, yet there's a distinctly rebellious, close-to avant garde stamp as well. The singing is one example of many; the voice of lead singer Jónsi Birgisson often sounds warped or transformed, or at least muted. His voice is never given the central stage it often has on the band's later albums, yet it's used as an instrument just the same, albeit in a less overly dynamic way.

Sigur Ros' music on the whole is evocative of many things at once and hard to pin down. It's filled with atmosphere at every turn, yet often has the punch of unleashed rock n' roll. And they never take a safe or conventional route, even if it leads people to call them pretentious. Von shows that this has been true since the band came into existence, though it also shows that the band's initial steps weren't nearly as focused or as fresh-sounding as their second album would be. In places Von seems to wander aimlessly, yet it's always intriguing, not just as a baby picture but also as an album of its own.


Issue 28, November 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds