It should come as no great shock that, back in 2002, Sigur Rós decided to collaborate with a chanting fisherman and an ordained practitioner of the Pagan religion with an official title of “chief god.” Iceland’s most globally recognized act since Bjork, Sigur Rós have always demonstrated a taste for the odd, to say the least, and the band has often created its own musical universe via sounds that defy description. Odin’s Raven Magic, a 2004 recording of a live performance of the aforementioned collaboration, captures the band weaving itself into an operatic score for the Hrafnagaldur Óðins (“Odin’s Raven Magic”) chapter from the poetry volume of the Edda (aka The Poetic Edda), a collection of epic poetry transcribed in the 13th century (with much older roots) that comprises one of the foundational texts of Norse mythology, and the cosmology of the early Icelandic people in particular.
Conversely, the album also spotlights a custom-made stone marimba with no precedent of prior use in Icelandic music. Still, where Sigur Rós on their own have tended to use exotic instruments as jumping-off points for imaginative flights of fancy, the framework for Odin’s Raven Magic grounds the band and shows that, when they wanted to, they were more than capable of tempering their penchant for extravagant strangeness. Which is not to say that Odin’s Raven Magic’s doesn’t contain many of the band’s signature hallmarks—like the rest of the Sigur Rós discography, the album comes drenched in mood, as well as an incomparable sense of elegance.
Just as Sigur Rós were in the thick of working on their untitled “brackets album,” the follow-up to their breakthrough sophomore effort Ágætis Byrjun, the band was approached by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who had just been commissioned by the Reykjavik Arts Festival to come up with a new work. Hilmarsson—a film composer and musician of towering stature in Iceland, as well as a progressive high priest (that’s “chief god” to you and me) of the Norse religion Ásatrúarfélagið (officially recognized by Iceland’s government in the early ‘70s)—had long been drawn to the Edda, and had been intrigued by the possibility of working with Sigur Rós from the first time he’d heard them in 1999.
The Hrafnagaldur Óðins section of the Edda delves into apocalyptic themes where both humans and the gods face the prospect of the end of the world. Hilmarsson envisioned being able to transpose those themes into modern ecological concerns, particularly as they resonate in Iceland vis-à-vis climate change, etc. When you listen to the album, it’s clear from the outset that Hilmarsson recruited Sigur Rós precisely because he wanted them to bring their melodramatic vibe to the proceedings. And they certainly deliver: Odin’s Raven Magic is as brooding as anything the band has ever done. But anchored in a sense of real-life concern, the music here is less indulgent, with the band taking great care to convey a sincere feeling of mournfulness, even as it communicates in the exaggerated gestures of the operatic tradition.
Listening back to the way Odin’s Raven Magic unfolds, it’s a miracle that the band learned the orchestrations, came up with their own augmentations for them, and got the execution tight enough to perform in the space of just two weeks—especially as its longest-running lineup of frontman Jónsi Birgisson, bassist Goggi Holm, now-departed keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson, and now-departed drummer Orri Páll Dýrason had only recently solidified. The performance on the album itself took place two years later, but even still, fans should regard Odin’s Raven Magic as one of Sigur Rós’ most impressive accomplishments.
The lithophone (stone marimba)—one of the band’s principle contributions here—steals the show without being played for novelty value. Instead, during sections like “Áss hinn hvíti,” the band employs the instrument in softly clattering phrases that slither across the soundscape like thousands of millipedes’ feet, subtly intoning the primordial essence of a nature that’s waking up to revolt against us. Likewise, a series of interlocking, Philip Glass-ian marimba patterns introduce the ominous “Hvert stefnir,” which ever so gradually magnifies in darkness and urgency over its near-10-minute runtime, an exercise in both supreme economy and grandiose bombast that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the whole album. By contrast, on “Dvergmál,” the marimba simply supports the main hook, much as a guitar arpeggio would in a standard pop song.
There are, of course, some key differences between this album and “proper” Sigur Rós albums. Longtime fans should know about them and approach with tempered expectations: Frst, Jónsi’s signature falsetto voice takes a backseat to chanter-fisherman Steindór Andersen, with whom the band had previously worked on its 2001 EP Rimur. Next, Odin’s Raven Magic functions more like a traditional piece of classical music. The string swells that open the album immediately signal that what you’re about to hear is more like the sound of Sigur Rós tethered to the stage of a recital hall, not quite the musical unit that has carved a career out of limitlessness.
Oddly, these constraints end up benefiting the music: Instead of enveloping the listener in the insularity that dominates much of its other work, the band takes this as an opportunity to rein in its extravagant strangeness. Apparently, giving Sigur Rós a framework to work as part of a larger team—working within an overarching structure of outside sounds, themes and visuals—was something the band was quite readily able to adapt itself to fit. And, as slow-building as this album is from start to finish, Sigur Rós and company managed to create something engaging enough that it grips the listener’s attention over repeat listens in a single sitting.
Where Sigur Rós milestones like Ágætis Byrjun and the brackets album are defined (for better or worse) by their preciousness—and by their intentional open-endedness, designed to allow listeners to bring their own experience to the music—Odin’s Raven Magic finds its roots in a much deeper well of universal human experience. Ancient peoples, of course, had a far more dynamic and precarious relationship with nature than most of us do today, as do the societies who continue to evade modernity into the 21st century. Regardless of one’s fluency with the Edda, or with Icelandic language and culture, Odin’s Raven Magic serves as a most compelling reminder of what we stand to lose when we renounce our primal vulnerability—our sense of place in a universe swirling with forces that dwarf our importance.
The ravens of the title, for example, would swoop across the earth, giving us a sense of how the people who first interacted with these poems viewed themselves as small, even helpless players in the natural order. Pre-modern people had no way of imagining our current-day predicaments. And though Hilmarsson interprets these poems as a warning, it says a lot that Sigur Rós were able to convey that warning within the context of a work that couldn’t spell it out for us. As such, this recording represents a most remarkable gift. After 16 years of sitting in the vault (with only bits and pieces having surfaced online), Odin’s Raven Magic arrives as a welcome addition to the Sigur Rós canon.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can read his work, listen to his interviews and playlists at feedbackdef.com, and find him on Twitter.