Sigur Rós had grand plans for the release of Odin’s Raven Magic. Their orchestral collaboration with fellow Icelandic musicians Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Steindór Andersen, and María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir premiered in 2002 at London’s Barbican Centre and was recorded live during a performance at La Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris two years later. Mixed as far back as 2006, the album was put on hold as the post-rock group discussed how best to release it. With extravagant artwork, perhaps? Or with a set of videos that would emphasize the importance of the medieval Icelandic poem they had put music to? Its legend growing over the course of 16 years, the recording has finally seen the light of day—but without any added bells or whistles. “It’s been lying around for such a long time and people have been asking if it’s going to come out, waiting for it. We decided, let’s just do a simple release, get it out,” Kjartan Sveinsson tells Apple Music.
The former Sigur Rós keyboardist was instrumental in pulling the ambitious project together and looks back on its creation as a stressful but rewarding time. “It was fun and a bit crazy,” he says. “We were still writing music the day before rehearsals.” Written the same year that their third studio album, ( ), brought Sigur Rós to the world’s attention, Odin’s Raven Magic is the sound of the band experimenting with elegant and beautiful orchestral and choral arrangements. It is too good an album to be gathering dust. “It’s a bit silly sitting on something like this, because it’s not totally bad,” says Sveinsson with huge understatement. Here, he takes us on the journey into Odin’s Raven Magic, track by track.
“This is a piece that Hilmar wrote and delivered at the very last minute. It’s kind of a meditation to begin before the whole thing really starts. It was really good to have a bit of a prologue for the piece, because on the next one it starts with the poem. It’s good to have a little bit of foreplay.”
“That is actually a theme that me and Jónsi [Birgisson, Sigur Rós singer and guitarist] had been playing with in hotel rooms on tour, a bit before we put it into Odin’s Raven Magic. Most of the pieces are quite simple themes that are orchestrated and maybe composed a bit, but this one was quite simple. It fitted Steindór, the chanter, really well. I think this is the only bit that we had before, the only idea that existed before. All the rest was written especially for it, very last-minute.”
“This is one of the themes that we wrote on the stone marimba, which was built for the performance by [artist and musician] Páll Guðmundsson. It builds around the marimba, and it’s a repeated theme. It’s fun with the stones, because they’re not really tempered, they don’t really tune with each other sonically. They’re all in tune, but sonically each stone is different from the other. So when you’re writing music on the stone marimba, you tend to go to a stone that pleases you, unconsciously in a way. Each stone is individual and kind of special. It’s really fun to experiment with that kind of stuff.”
“This is also based on the stone marimba theme. Then Steindór, the chanter, he wrote all these chanting melodies that he sings. He wrote all of those on top of the stone marimba themes, which I think is really well done, really beautiful. His melodies sound very ancient. We have this Icelandic special chanting style, which is sometimes rhythmically and sonically different from other folk music. He is a specialist in that field and he managed to write his own chants, new chants. Kind of new folk songs, if you will. The orchestration on that was really fun because we also had the sampler we were working [with]. Jónsi was working with it a lot. I had to orchestrate all this stuff and I think Jónsi brought it to me on a floppy disc. So, this one was kind of Jónsi’s arrangement.”
Áss hinn hvíti
“‘Áss hinn hvíti’ translates as ‘the white god,’ which is Heimdallr. There’s a lot of horns on this, as Heimdallr is the one who blows the horn at the end of the world. This is kind of a prologue to the Edda [two key works of ancient Norse mythology], which is about the ending, really. I think it was a very fitting little track in the middle of the piece.”
“This is based on the stone marimba again, and then Steindór’s chant. I think Steindór’s chant is really good on this one—I think it really hits the spot there with Steindór and it’s very fitting to the lyrics. It was Jónsi again with the sampler and we did the basis for the arrangement.”
Spár eða spakmál
“This is based on the same chant as in ‘Stendur æva’ but with a different tonal language, so it is kind of the same song, the arrangement and tonal language accompanying the main melody. The band has never really been conceptual, but we’ve often figured out the concept after we’ve done something. Of course, this piece is conceptual but when we were working on the music, we weren’t really diving into the lyrics. We were just making music.”
“This is going back to the first one, with the same melody. Then it ends with chanting of Odin’s names, like a ritual. Then we do this embarrassing rock ’n’ roll thing in the end, doing rock ’n’ roll with an orchestra. We did it and we just have to live with it. I mean, we can’t exclude that from the release, can we? No. I was happy with the performance, but I was embarrassed by the rock ’n’ roll thrashing. The world is ending and we were trying to express that somehow. That didn’t go very well. But I was just glad that we survived and managed to play the whole piece, without too many hiccups.”