Album Review: Sigur Rós, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Steindór Andersen and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir – Odin’s Raven Magic

[KRUNK; 2020]

This is not your average Sigur Rós album. Whatever pipe dreams you may have had of another sweeping, brittle, occasionally-punishing post-rock album from these vets of the genre, wave them adieu. Credited to the band along with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Steindór Andersen and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Odin’s Raven Magic is a recording of a performance from all the way back in 2003, largely composed by Sigfúsdóttir and now-ex-bandmate Kjartan Sveinsson. And while it may not truly resemble much of anything in the band’s back catalog, it is a sort of fascinating piece: a looming work of orchestral and operatic beauty, with valleys and peaks and oh so much drama.

The suite is an adaptation of sorts of a 13th century Icelandic myth, and it’s full of equal parts sparkling wonderment and apocalyptic, hellish dread. The details of the story itself will largely go unnoticed, of course, unless the listener speaks Icelandic. (This writer does not speak Icelandic.) However, the drama and emotional journey the suite traverses is made evident by an active string section, a chilling choir, and some stunning operatic lead vocals. After a scene-setting prologue, the male vocal from Steindór Andersen that leads us through “Alföður orkar” is mournful, potent, and pained – no wonder he’s referred to as “one of Iceland’s most respected chanters of traditional epic narrative” in the press release. The strings and choir behind him feel particularly sinister and foreboding.

For all the classic Sigur Rós-ness it lacks, Odin’s Raven Magic does tread in well-worn territory for the band, who have never shied away from drama, melodrama, and emotionally stirring or grandiose moments. “Hvert stefnir” climaxes in a fit of rumbling drums, choirs, and yearning strings. “Spár eða spakmál” intertwines its pining violins and cellos with lush horns and stunning female vocals. It’s a moment that mixes a sense of elation with a sense of despair, and does so quite easily.

One of the most intriguing elements of this suite is the very pronounced inclusion of a vibraphone – but not any old one. It’s a special vibraphone, made custom from stone for this performance, and its resonant tones give a sort of earthen root to many of the loftier moments. It also tends to soundtrack the most Sigur Rós-like moments, such as “Dvergmál” which blooms into a sweet rush of skyward vocals, rushing drums, and plinking vibraphone. 

But these moments are relatively far between – overall, this feels like its own thing, that you’d be forgiven for forgetting Sigur Rós were involved in at all. Jónsi’s vocals don’t even show up very much – when they peek in on the fourth track, it’s almost startling, causing a bit of a disturbance to the flow of the album. This show belongs to everyone here, especially the orchestra and the other vocalists.

The whole suite climaxes, fittingly, with the closing track, “Dagrenning”, which travels a winding road of choirs and strings, only to explode with towering drums and fiery intensity. It feels like the conclusion to the story, even if we can’t understand the narrative. 

The most shocking thing about it, though, is the eruption of crowd applause at the end. Up to that point, it’s almost impossible to tell this recording is being performed in front of a live audience. The production is immaculate, the tones rich and lush and round, every instrument absolutely clear in the mix. The emotional undercurrents and the bombastic melodrama come through beautifully, coming off like an especially enormous film score. Although this may not be what all Sigur Rós fans were hoping for, standing on its own, Odin’s Raven Magic is a gorgeous, moving piece of neoclassical musicianship, performance, and composition.