In many ways, it’s completely appropriate that the long-anticipated new record, Odin’s Raven Magic, from the Grammy-nominated Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, is coming out on December 4th.
The eight-track album feels like the very chilling winter skies hanging above most of the country these days. There are sonic dashes of light mixed with a modicum of musical mist. There are shimmering stars and sweeping orchestrations like comets bouncing through the night sky. The live LP, which was recorded nearly two decades ago, also fits in-line with the many B-sides, rarities and live albums released by various groups this year, unearthed out of necessity as much as to celebrate artistry. In an era when recorded music or live performance is prohibited, these albums are more than welcomed. But Odin’s Raven Magic, itself, almost never came to be. In this way, its very existence is as much a miracle as the lovely melodies and sonic textures it offers.
“A couple of months prior to the premiere, we realized we didn’t really have anything,” says Kjartan Sveinsson of the mad dash years ago that it took to produce the album’s music. “So, I had to go and start writing all the arrangements. It turned out we only had two-to-three weeks to get this done. Everyone worked really hard.”
Sveinsson, who was an official member of Sigur Rós from 1998-2012, though he’d collaborated with them for even longer, had a unique role in the group. In many ways he was a “gap filler,” meaning he played or wrote parts for whatever was needed for a given song. The band, which was founded by guitarist Jónsi Birgisson, bassist Georg Hólm and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson, often needed Sveinsson to glue everything together with elegant orchestrations, adding strings, piano or even instruments like saxophone to the group’s compositions. And on the live Odin’s Raven Magic, which the band arranged then performed sparingly thereafter, this was his job, too.
“The boys were doing arrangements on samplers and stuff like that,” he says. “Then I had to take that and make it into something the orchestra could work with. It was really stressful. When we were supposed to premiere it, I’d stayed up for three days and three nights without sleeping.”
Odin’s Raven Magic is a nearly-70-minute album based off an apocalyptic chapter of Iceland’s Medieval literary canon known as the Edda. The poem discusses a banquet of the gods in which certain signs portend the end of the world. To write the music, which was commissioned by the Reykjavik Arts Festival in 2002, Sigur Rós only had a few rudimentary parts to begin with. So, Sveinsson had to again fill the gaps. The forthcoming recording comes from a performance in Paris. The music, which was a collaboration between Sigur Rós, Icelandic music legend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson (an ordained ‘chief goði’ of the pagan Norse religion Ásatrúarfélagið) and singer Steindór Andersen (a fisherman and one of Iceland’s most respected chanters of traditional epic narrative). And to add to the degree of difficulty, Sigur Rós performed the hour-plus work from memory.
“It was a bit challenging,” Sveinsson says. “Because we had to be on time and come in at the right times. There was not much room for fuck-ups. Also, we didn’t perform it that often. And because the boys don’t read music, it was all about memorizing where you came in.”
Since that performance in Paris nearly two decades ago, rumors swirled about the LP’s eventual release. Fans had short snippets that they shared online, hoping, one day, to get the final full-length product. But after it’s recording, there was a contentious back-and-forth behind the scenes about how and when to release the record and what other works might need to be released with it. There was so much talk, though, that the effort was stunted and paused for years. Sveinsson, who grew up with four older siblings who loved music and who remembers hearing David Bowie at six-years-old, says he’s grateful the album can be heard.
“We always wanted to release this,” he says. “But it all kind of fell through because it had become too complicated. So, it was shelved, which was a shame. But our fans have been waiting for this for years. So, it’s really great we can release it now finally.”
Iceland, says Sveinsson, does not have a long history of folk music. But Odin’s Raven Magic does represent some of the country’s best. The epic poem that inspired the eight tracks is a dense one, Sveinsson says. Scholars have studied it for many years. But the warnings it offers ring similarly to the climate change and socio-political flags we’re seeing rise up these days. For Sveinsson, who started playing with Sigur Rós about six months after the trio formed, he knows what the power of music can achieve for people. But he also knows the frustration it can create. Intensity at any level can birth tension. So, sometimes it’s important to step back and observe that tension rather than continue to dive headfirst into it. Ultimately, that’s the message of the new record.
“Music is kind of the great healer, isn’t it?” Sveinsson says. “There’s always music for every occasion. It’s just so important.”