A delightful replication of a live experience
As music fans, people have been rather spoiled by the 21st century. The availability of streaming services and the massive libraries of music to which these services offer access have put people on an entirely different level as music fans from previous generations, who were by and large restricted to listening to what was sold to them, or what they could afford to take a chance on at the record store. On top of that, the barrier to entry in making music has been lowered. All one needs is a computer and they’re more than welcome to download all the tools they need to make a record. Once it’s crafted, they don’t need to get in touch with a label or a pressing plant, they just hop over to Soundcloud or Bandcamp and post the files. Voila. A world of music sits at people’s fingertips.
But for all these improvements, 2020 might be the first year where the modern music fan finds themselves lagging behind their past selves. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have halted concerts worldwide, and in America, where government mismanagement at every level has allowed the disease to spread virtually unchecked, concerts and festivals may not come until well into 2021. This inability to convene around a shared music experience has made it difficult to internalize records in the same way as one typically would, but it has had a particular and odd benefit; allowing fans to truly recognize the power of the live album.
By and large, live albums are cheap money-grabs, hastily assembled to grab a bit of extra scratch from a series of performances that otherwise would have completed their financial lifespan. Sigur Rós clearly took umbrage with this perception when they were constructing Odin’s Raven Magic, and have used the opportunity of 2020 to release something that transports us back to the moments when music was a communal experience and not something experienced in headphones, alone in the dark of a Woodland Hills apartment.
Originally performed 18 years ago at the Barbican Center in London, Odin’s Raven Magic is an orchestral collaboration between Sigur Rós, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Steindór Andersen and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir. It carries forward the ancient Icelandic tradition of oral history through performance, and is based on a 14th or 15th century poem from an unknown author. The poem has been added to the Edda (a term that describes two Icelandic manuscripts which together are the main sources of Norse mythology and Skáldic poetry) in the time since its discovery, and is now carried forward to people in an audio form by Sigur Rós and their collaborators.
So how does it stand musically? Well, being an 18-year0old performance, it stands triumphantly. Whether discussing the enveloping cool of “Prologus” or the driving force of “Stendur æva” and its subsequent denouement “Ǻss hinn hvíti,” it’s clear that this record captures what makes Sigur Rós special, and in the same breath, adds a compelling new life to an ancient Icelandic work of culture. The addition of Páll Guðmundsson’s specially created stone marimba, in particular, lends the record a distinct sonic profile that has not been replicated in any other work of music. Of all the tracks, album closer “Dagrenning” stands out as the greatest on the record. Hulking and oceanic, the track looms like a warning monolith in the distance; the middle swell in particular is forceful in a way that inspires awe and dread in equal measure. And thanks to the dedicated efforts of those who recorded and mastered the performance, it sounds as if listeners are sitting in the auditorium themselves.
Looking back at Odin’s Raven Magic, it seems fitting that they have left in the applause of the crowd. Though these moments are present in nearly all live albums, the lack of applause during the rest of the performance makes this a clear choice, and not a consequence of the medium. In previous years, people may have derided this particular choice as self-indulgent, childish or masturbatory at worst. But in 2020, the crowd cheers with fans, a unit, a soul, a community, experiencing the same thing all at once and deciding “yes, we do like this. We like this very much.”