Releasing December 4th on Krunk via Warner Classics comes Sigur Rós’ Odin’s Raven Magic, an orchestral rendition of the medieval Icelandic poem Hrafnagaldur Óðins. First commissioned in 2002 and performed in conjunction with Paris’ La Grande Halle de la Villette orchestra in that same year, the recording is now being made available to the public for the first time since its inception.
The original Odin’s Raven Magic poem, likely a 17th Century addition to the Icelandic epic the Edda, tells the tale of the goddess Iðunn’s fall from the world tree Yggdrasil, a portent that precedes the onset of Ragnarök, the apocalypse of the Norse gods. For those willing to look into translations of the text, rich scenes of opulent feasts, apocalyptic weather fronts, playful gods and varied races of the ancient world abound.
A creature of collaboration, this album is something of a chimera, and not just because of its medieval roots. Sigur Rós have attempted to blend beautiful orchestral and choral arrangements put together by former keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson and amiina’s Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir with the brooding chanting of Steindór Andersen, a fisherman known for his haunting renditions of the medieval poem. At times this works, but at others, the fusion is less than perfect.
As with any modern reimagining of a medieval text, Odin’s Raven Magic faces the classic conundrum of translation vs. preservation and approximation vs. innovation. Those who prefer the former in each case will be glad to know that seven of the eight tracks of the album feature the original text of the poem in its exact form, as chanted by Andersen. This chanting is the beating heart of the album, and Andersen’s mournful dirge imbues the tale of Iðunn’s fall with a real sense of tragedy and loss.
Often the orchestral arrangements attempt to match the ancient atmosphere that Andersen so strongly conjures, and opening track ‘Prologus’ employs high-strung violins and surging cellos to build towards the onset of apocalyptic dread that Iðunn’s fall heralds. This is a tale of dark times to come, and the storm-like swells and falls of this prelude return throughout the album at times of loss or failure, re-emerging in ‘Stendur æva’ when we witness Iðunn’s fall itself, and again in ‘Áss hinn hvíti’ when the worried gods seek her council only to be given the cold shoulder.
‘Alföður orkar’ showcases the album’s dramatic core, employing heavenly choruses and grieving violins to create a heavy sense of grief, playing on the themes of desolation and the death of races, namely the dwarves, in the opening of the poem. Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Icelandic musician and pagan priest, was consulted on the themes of the poem for this rendition and seems eager to link these apocalyptic images to aspects of the modern world.
Particularly Hilmarsson has zeroed in on a passage of the poem describing the onset of sleep over the land of Midgard. Andersen chants the line describing ‘thorn from the rime-cold giant’s cornfield’ spreading over the earth, which in this case refers to a shaft of ice or frost. This beautiful poetry seems to have been interpreted in a somewhat heavy-handed manner by Hilmarsson, with the ultimate suggestion in the band’s press release being that it refers to ice covering the earth in some kind of deep freeze.
Whilst the specifics of the original poem are somewhat contested, it seems reductive for Sigur Rós to link this to climate science in the 21st Century. In reality, scholarly consensus is that the stretching of ice in the poem seems to refer to a ‘cold’ mental state that comes with sleep, and is in reference to Iðunn’s refusal to speak to the gods. Thus the vaguely political allusions to Iceland’s hydro-electric power stations feel like a half-hearted attempt to relate the album to the modern world.
Indeed, though at times showing glimpses of brilliance, the album as a whole struggles to remain relevant in 2020; perhaps no wonder, considering it was recorded in 2002. A key offender that captures this inability to combine the old and the new is track 3, ‘Dvergmál’, wherein Andersen’s verses focus on the dwarves and the races of the dying worlds beneath the world-tree, Yggdrasil.
The medieval soundscape is cast aside here and replaced with an overly-twee major-key clash of traditional orchestral sounds and misplaced modern elements. The string section becomes oversweet to the point of being saccharine, the simplistic bass feels fresh out of a mid-2000s pop-rock ballad, and the overused snare rush makes the track sound more like something from Coldplay’s back catalogue than an Icelandic epic.
This is a shame, as this is also the first track to introduce Páll Guðmundsson’s stone marimba, hewn especially for this production, a genius addition to the orchestra. Reminiscent of Uakti’s use of marimbas in the 1990s with Aguas de Amazonia, the layered approach used here adds a beautiful patina of otherworldly naturalism to Odin’s imagery of inscrutable gods and esoteric lore.
The marimba is especially prevalent in ‘Stendur æva’, the central track of the album. Here, Sigur Rós’ lead singer Jónsi accompanies Andersen’s chanting and the thrumming chorus of the gods, at times overriding the arrangement with his alto - though to some extent it works well as a wolf-like howl, matching the imagery of Iðunn taking shelter from the cold beneath a wolf’s hide.
There’s much to love in this track, and it might just be the album’s only successful attempt to blend modern soundscapes with traditional instruments. A warped electronic distortion plays out over Iðunn’s contemplation of her fall, making the world feel unfamiliar and putting the listener in the headspace of the goddess come-to-earth. As she gazes up at the night sky, afraid and confused, we hear the sounds of sonic tears in the sky above, swaying grass below our feet, and crunching electrical distortions that lend the track an alien atmosphere.
The god's arrival to interrogate Iðunn is also beautifully portrayed in ‘Áss hinn hvíti’, combining a sonorous chorus with the creaking of crickets, the flittering of dragonflies, and the swooping of ravens’ wings, all of this coming together to create a truly epic atmosphere under the shadow of the world tree’s roots. The motifs of the prologue and opening tracks return here to epic effect, along with Guðmundsson’s marimba, and an undercurrent of powerful horns giving way to a subtle conclusion of holy quietude.
This is, without doubt, the high point of the album, and unfortunately, the next few tracks suffer heavily from more modern interjections. Jónsi’s mournful howling returns in ‘Spár eða spakmál’, this time to the detriment of Andersen’s sonorous chanting, and closing track ‘Dagrenning’ builds to an epic conclusion that ultimately collapses behind a jumble of roiling guitars and booming kettle drums. The ancient and the modern never quite manage to coalesce, and somehow we’re left with the sense that this album has become outdated in 2020, despite working with timeless material.
Ultimately, Sigur Rós’ Odin’s Raven Magic doesn’t successfully translate the medieval poem into the modern world, and one can’t help but wonder if, recorded 18 years ago, it hasn’t been released a little too late. Parts of the album feels like orchestral poetry, parts of it feel like a caricature of Sigur Rós’ style, and when these two halves meet in the middle the results are often less than stellar. The elements of the latter feel outdated compared to the band’s more recent material, and one is left wondering why they waited so long to release it.
This is the core issue with Odin’s Raven Magic. In the end, it fails to combine its influences and ends up feeling self-gratifying. The one minute and twenty seconds of applause included at the end of ‘Dagrenning’ is especially off-putting. Frankly, it feels out of place on an album that aspires to the heights of Asgard and lands squarely in the realm of mediocrity.