The 18-year itch – Sigur Rós reach into the archives to sound a warning on Odin’s Raven Magic

In these times of stasis, it is tempting to look backwards, to find a sense of comfort in nostalgia.  Whilst most of us would be content with reliving a simpler time through our streaming subscriptions, Icelandic post-rock aficionados Sigur Rós have tapped into their home’s rich traditions and mythology to resurrect Odin’s Raven Magic. A collaboration with pagan composer and art director Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, singing fisherman Steindór Andersen, sculptor and percussionist Páll Guðmundsson and composer Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, the composition was first performed in 2002. Based on the poem ‘Hrafnagaldr Óðins’, part of a collection of medieval Old Norse verse known as the Poetic Edda, it sounds a warning of the end of our spiritual and physical worlds. A cautionary tale echoing through the ages, it resonates particularly strongly today as we stand amongst the ashes of a lost year, still teetering on the brink of a potential ecological catastrophe.

This ambitious work weaves together orchestral and choral elements with the band’s unmistakably glacial sound. Opening with the foreboding ‘Prologus’, swells of strings and horns melt into the mournful tone poem of ‘Alföður orkar’.  It isn’t until the third track ‘Dvergmál’ that the full arsenal of the collective is brought to bear, with the striking sounds of Páll Guðmundsson’s stone marimba, the Steinharpa, backed by euphoric choir and the unleashed energy of Sigur Ros’ rhythm section. Once the album hits this contextual midpoint there is a coherence, though it takes its time getting there, with a full 25 minutes passing before we hear frontman Jónsi’s familiar falsetto in ‘Stendur æva’.  But just as Odin’s Raven Magic enfolds and engages in its twinkling beauty, it cuts you adrift again. The sense of pace is abandoned in favour of an icy formlessness which occasionally locks together long enough to build to a melodramatic crescendo, most notably in the closing track ‘Dagrenning’.

Sigur Ros – Odin’s Raven Magic artwork. Credit: Krúnk, via Wikipedia, fair use in Odin’s Raven Magic.

This brings us to two central difficulties in getting to the heart of this record.  The first is that this is, in essence, a performance, where the epic scope and length needs to be offset by the spectacle, something which is lost when isolating the recording. Secondly, the poetic qualities offer a narrative thrust which should provide propulsion, but the impenetrability of the language barrier is not something which can be as easily ignored as in the rest of the band’s work.  The result is an album that can be difficult to get inside of; this may be easier for fans of modernist classical music, but for the rest of us Odin’s Raven Magic is an unscalable iceberg, with most of its body lying beneath the surface.  Although it has something to reveal to those willing to plumb the depths, save for all but the most die-hard fans, it may be a polar trek too far.

Header image credit: Impatto Sonoro.