The end is nigh.
You feel it in your bones. Each time you read the news, each time your phone beeps with fresh tidings of another catastrophe, there’s a sense of unravelling, a sense that we can’t possibly keep hurtling from one disaster to the next. Civilisation is exhausting. Give us some catharsis. Just let the whole thing splatter onto the pavement already.
The problem is that history never runs out of new corners to turn. The end times never really end.
“In the Eddas, Ragnarök is the end of the world, but what it actually means is that when something comes to an end, something new begins,” says Georg Holm, the bassist of Sigur Rós and one of the band’s two remaining members.
‘Remaining’ being the operative word here: for some years now, it’s been unclear whether or not Sigur Rós had ceased to exist, following several public scandals and, most notably, the departure of drummer Orri Páll Dýrason amid sexual assault allegations in 2018. There hasn’t been a studio album or a tour since the release of ‘Kveikur’ in 2013; keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson left around the same time and frontman Jónsi remains conspicuously absent, currently holed up in Los Angeles pursuing his own projects.
It’s December, one year into a global pandemic, and I’m on a Zoom call with Georg, Kjartan and long-time collaborator María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (of Amiina fame). The band have just released a new album, the long-awaited ‘Odin’s Raven Magic’—ORM, for short.
Admittedly, “new” is a strong word here. In a release schedule that can best be described as glacial, ‘Odin’s Raven Magic’ was first composed in 2002 and performed just a handful of times, surviving only in whispers, legends and bootlegged YouTube clips. The new release was actually recorded live in Paris and mastered in 2008, with the band inadvertently deciding to sit on it for 12 years.
“There was a lot of other stuff going on and it sort of fell between the cracks,” explains Georg. “It was always meant to come out, but I guess it took a lot longer than anyone expected. It’s very fitting that the album is being released now, though. It’s music that is really old and is all about the end of the world. It’s the end of 2020 and hopefully, 2021 will be something completely different.”
Unpicking ‘Odin’s Raven Magic’ is no easy task, largely because it is so unlike any other Sigur Rós release. It is perhaps one of the band’s most collaborative efforts to date. The piece was originally conceived of by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, a veteran composer as well as the current allsherjargoði (chieftain) of the Icelandic heathen organisation, the Ásatrúarfélagið.
Hilmar was commissioned by Reykjavík Art Festival in 2002 to produce an orchestral rendition of “Hrafngaldr Óðins,” a lost chapter of the Poetic Edda and the inspiration for the album’s name. Hilmar, on a self-described crusade to have the poem reinstated as part of the Edda, asked the band to join the project. They immediately said yes.
With less than two weeks to put the piece together before the festival, the team enlisted Steindór Andersen, one of Iceland’s foremost epic poetry rhyming chanters. They then called Páll Guðmundsson, a sculptor and the inventor of the steinharpa—a marimba constructed out of stones—and headed straight out to the countryside to begin composing.
As only one member of Sigur Rós—Kjartan—is able to read music, it quickly became clear they would need outside help, so María jumped in to oversee the arrangements—or, as she puts it, “save Kjartan from a nervous breakdown.”
From there, this beautiful—if inaccessible—text began to take on new life.
A shot across the bow
In many ways, ‘Odin’s Raven Magic’ and the text on which it is based are warnings from the past; shots across the bow into an uncertain, terrifying future.
Just as the album was composed years before its release, the poem was discovered centuries after it was first written. It was proclaimed to be a forgery in the 1980s and disqualified from editions of the Poetic Edda until 2012, when new scholarship certified it to be authentic and possibly even hundreds of years older than the other Eddic poems. (It has only recently been included in published editions of the Edda.)
The original text—which forms the basis of the lyrics to Steindór’s hypnotic chanting—tells the story of the end of the world. The imagery of the poem, which scholars suspect to be missing its beginning and end, paints a story of decline, in which the world is freezing over from north to south. And while the world freezes, the gods feast, oblivious to their own doom.
“It was an apocalyptic warning,” says Hilmar. “Perhaps the people of the time felt it in their skins. Today, of course, Iceland is involved in environmental issues surrounding hydro-electric power and the destruction of the Highlands. We are being warned again.”
Odin’s Raven Magic hibernates
‘Odin’s Raven Magic’ is much bigger than just a Sigur Rós album. It’s a truly collaborative effort. Steindór is a commanding vocal presence, almost relegating Jónsi to the sidelines as he leads the listener through the eight stanzas of this ancient text, while the steinharpa and the orchestra are so dominant as to almost make the band itself seem like backing musicians.
“As an outsider, it was an interesting project to take part in because of the complexity of it,” María says. “As well as the band and all their instrumentation, there is a sculptor that never performs on stage, then the chanter in a musical setting that he is not used to, and glueing it all together is an orchestra and a choir. So part of the reason it went into hibernation was because it was just such a beast. Everyone had to step out of their comfort zone.”
“The beauty of this is that all the people involved don’t recognise it as their own work. It’s so collaborative that it’s become an independent thing,” she continues. “The poem is just timeless and it’s more relevant than ever before, because it explores the end of the world. It’s been very interesting to actually look deeper into the poem—I didn’t have the time to actually look deeper into the poem at the time because it was just mayhem trying to cram it all together.”
The elephant in the room
While the new release is a long-awaited and welcome addition to the band’s discography, it’s a relic of an earlier Sigur Rós, and in some ways, the elephant is still in the room. They have only met online to make decisions about things like cover art and t-shirts. “It’s not like we came together like a football team and decided to release it,” Kjartan laughs. And, as we speak, there’s no fixed plans for the band’s future—no upcoming releases, no new projects, and no calendar. But then, perhaps there never has been.
“When you look at someone’s career, you might start to think about how something was thought through and you might think it’s all calculated,” María says. “But I don’t think things are calculated. You just react to what’s happening. I’m in a band that has changed members so dramatically over the years that nobody knows what it ‘means’. It’s more like an umbrella or a musical force that just… continues.”
“No one’s counting members,” Georg says. “People come and go. It’s free-form. Through the years we have approached each record as a separate project, and they’ve always been done differently—not necessarily by sitting down and discussing what we are going to do. Things change and you create in a different way. People change as well. Times change. Your own attitude to life changes.”
Weathering the Sigur Rós storm
Sigur Rós were founded in 1994, which, for this writer, means they have been active for an entire lifetime. In that time, Icelandic society has undergone massive tectonic shifts. The band has seen almost three of the country’s six presidents come and go, survived the rise and fall of entire industries and lived through the country’s transformation from a backwater in the North Atlantic to a global tourism hub and back again.
“Iceland has moved at such a speed since the two world wars because it was a very poor country at the turn of the century,” says Kjartan. “Everything changes very fast these days and has been for the last eighty years…”
“Except the politicians,” Georg interjects.
Kjartan continues: “So it’s exciting, but at the same time it’s reckless.”
“When we were filming [the tour movie] ‘Heima,’ I remember we came home after touring just before the [2008 financial crash] and we were like, ‘what’s happening here?!’ Everyone wanted to be a banker and we felt like we didn’t know our own country,” explains María. “Every generation has this feeling of Iceland changing so fast, but at the same time, the core doesn’t change.”
“We like things to happen fast, sometimes without thought, and it’s exciting in ways but it’s always the same feeling that you get stuck with when things aren’t done carefully. Which could be said about this album. It never would’ve been done if people had actually thought about what they were doing.”
Like the Edda, Sigur Rós’ music has always spoken to the enduring elements of life on this island, channelling its geophony, the wind-battering rhythms echoing from the past into today.
“With Sigur Rós, you never know what will happen. Things just kinda fall into our laps and we don’t overthink it,” Georg says. “Something could happen tomorrow or in ten years. We just never know.”
‘Odin’s Raven Magic’ is a message bottled in a distant past, a reminder of the things that endure: old friends, old poems, old ways. Like the steinharpa, which is said to never go out of tune, the band’s spontaneity and the spirit of creativity that drove them to write ORM, also endures. Perhaps we needed reminding. Perhaps they did too.
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