In the seven years since the last release of a new Sigur Rós studio record, it seems that they have become incredibly reflective. A band, whose sound is seemingly forged from the barren, harsh, brutal naturalism of their native Iceland as though chiseled from a rocky Nordic coastline or expunged in fury by a glacier, were no longer interested in exploring the places that their heady mix of post-rock and orchestral influences could take a listener. Instead, across a sea of releases, whether they be Anniversaries - as in the case of last year’s celebration of 'Agætis byrjun' - or in the form of their 24-hour “slow TV” event Route One, a reflective cloak has draped itself over the band in recent years.
It’s a common phenomena that finds artists with little left to say, that in the promotion of new releases, they plump for the age-old excuse of “getting back to basics/their roots/simpler times/any other variation that normally stands in for not being bothered to put the work in any more”. But, with Sigur Rós, you get the sense that something else is at work. On their latest release - a studio version of a nearly twenty-year-old project, obsessed over by fans on internet forums for almost as long as such discussion boards have existed - the band are shedding light on their own history, almost to test how resilient it is against the beast which they have now become.
When they originally began on the project now titled 'Odin’s Raven Magic', they were only two records into their career. Eighteen years later, five further studio albums as a recording force, as well as numerous off-shoots, solo projects, and soundtracks later, it’s become impossible to discuss modern rock music without addressing Jònsi and co. and their contribution to the current music landscape.
It’s for this reason that this newly-released version feels a little out of place. At the time of writing 'Odin’s Raven Magic' - itself adapted from a seventeenth century Icelandic poem Hrafnagaldr Óðins and blossomed into a full-blown orchestral setting - the band were about to release their much-lauded 2002 record '( )' which, in a similar spirit, takes an eleven-syllable phrase in the made-up language Hopelandic and contorts, mashes up, bends, tweaks, and rearranges it across eight untitled tracks.
Compared to the wispy, almost ethereal feel that most of '( )' adopts, 'Odin’s Raven Magic' is a hugely forceful suite of music. It has moments of great assurance, where drums, strings, and vocals are heavily foregrounded, making it perhaps the most solid or opaque soundscape of the band’s entire career.
But, it is also for this reason that you feel that something of the usual mystery that surrounds Sigur Rós has also been lost. As eluded to above, this is a piece of work that longtime fans of the band have obsessed over for years, a group of people to which this writer would also self-identify. And whilst it is doubtless an exciting prospect to finally hear the work in full and professionally produced, the elusive nature of this work has now dissipated.
It can sound a tad ungrateful to wish that this particular release, which chronicles a live recording of 'Odin’s Raven Magic' as performed in Paris in 2002, had never seen the light of day, and any such wishes aren’t borne out of a belief that it isn’t any good. Spend long enough in the presence of 'Odin’s Raven Magic' and you do find yourself being swept away by the sense of drama and conviction, and indignation that the music portrays. It also shows Jònsi’s heavenly vocals off better than his mixed-bag solo project Shiver did earlier this year.
The unease that is highlighted above has arisen more due to a feeling that the mercurial nature of this band is, bit by bit, being chiseled away at, and with it, an element of their work that has always found them reaching for loftier heights than their contemporaries feels less substantive.
It’s great that these past few years have been spent reflecting on the band’s early history, the excursions of their formative years which allowed them to become the world-beating behemoth that they are now established as. But now, with the release of 'Odin’s Raven Magic', the focus of this uniquely special band should turn forwards once more, excited and a little bit nervous about what awaits their future, rather than dwelling endlessly in their past.
Words: Mike Watkins
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