Album review: Sigur Rós – Odin’s Raven Magic

Odin's Raven's Magic is an orchestral album by Sigur Ros

Odin's Raven's Magic is an orchestral album by Sigur Ros - Credit: Archant

A moving Norse myth soundtrack captured live, released after nearly two decades in the archives

Odin's Raven's Magic is an orchestral album by Sigur Ros

Odin's Raven's Magic is an orchestral album by Sigur Ros - Credit: Archant

No sooner has Jónsi Birgisson released only his second solo record in a decade, just last month, his band finally gets round to issuing this long-awaited document of a unique, short-lived and much-talked-about live project.

Conceived and commissioned by the Reykjavik Arts Festival in 2002, ORM was a collaboration between the band and Icelandic music legend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (who is also ordained ‘chief goði’ of the pagan Norse religion Ásatrúarfélagið), and Steindór Andersen, a fisherman and one of Iceland’s most respected chanters of traditional epic narrative.

The darlings of post-rock were recording the follow-up to their breakthrough LP Ágætis Byrjun when Hilmarsson approached them to help soundtrack Odin’s Raven Magic, a chapter of Medieval Icelandic poetic verse, part of a literary canon known as the Edda.

The band’s elemental, impossibly beautiful compositions were a perfect fit for the ominous tale, in which the Norse god Odin’s ravens would reconnoitre faraway lands on his behalf. Ominously, they spot signs that the end of the world is nigh, freezing over southwards from the North Pole.

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Put together in just two weeks and performed a handful of times that year, only fragments of the shows have surfaced online since. This recording captures the Schola Cantorum of Reykjavik and L’Orchestre des Laureats du Conservatoire National de Paris playing in the French capital.

Synths still raise their head occasionally; brittle clicks and fuzz adding a sense of unease to the sound bed of Stendur Æva as Jónsi sings a rare duet with Andersen – but even here, the song basks in the transcendental power of the orchestra, which surges with strings, brass, drums and a gong.

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Alföður Orkar marries the gentle poise of classical violin with the ancient majesty of Medieval chant, before Dvergmál ushers in one of the set’s calling cards – a huge, five-octave marimba built specifically for the shows from roughly-hewn pieces of Icelandic stone.

The unusual lithophone’s gentle, clipped notes only add to the song’s ethereal timelessness with soaring chorals, twinkling glockenspiel and cantering drums making for one of the record’s most uplifting moments.

A collaboration in its truest sense, the performance captures the fascinating crossroads between sweeping orchestral grace and drama, heavenly chorals, Andersen’s evocative baritone chants and the seismic soundscapes Sigur Rós are renowned for.

Rating: 4/5

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