Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Solstafir - Ótta (Album Review)

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 29/8/2014
Label: Season of Mist

‘Ótta’ CD/DD/LP track listing:

1. Lágnætti (08:44)
2. Ótta (09:34)
3. Rismál (04:24)
4. Dagmál (05:39)
5. Miðdegi (04:18)
6. Nón (07:47)
7. Miðaftann (05:39)
8. Náttmál (11:15)


SÓLSTAFIR are different. Their unique blend of metal with beautiful melodies, psychedelic moments and a strong undercurrent of classic / hard rock comes as varied and at times appealingly bizarre as the landscapes of their native Iceland. Their fifth full-length "Ótta" is the logical continuation of the musical course this four-piece adopted on the highly acclaimed forerunner "Svartir Sandar" (2011). Expect the unexpected, such as seduction by subtle strings or a hypnotic banjo. None of this was apparent when SÓLSTAFIR released their album debut "Í Blóði og Anda", which translates as 'In Blood and Spirit' in 2002. Instead of today's Icelandic gravel throated siren chants, frontman Aðalbjörn Tryggvason spit forth vitriolic crust-like vocals and the ripping guitars were clearly black metal inspired. Yet the band was as clearly identifiable back then as now and along their way with the next albums "Masterpiece of Bitterness" (2005) and "Köld" (2009) introducing new elements in a continuous evolution. SÓLSTAFIR's music is as much the product of Arctic blizzards as of red hot volcanic magma, erupting geysers, lush green pastures, and salty waves. With "Ótta" the Icelanders touch something ancient and timeless, while defying easy categorisation. This album needs to be heard again and again, to peel back layers of details, each different and yet always revealing the same: great songs – all of them. The song titles of "Ótta" form a concept based on an old Icelandic system of time keeping similar to the monastic hours called "Eykt" ("eight"). The 24 hour day was divided into 8 parts of 3 hours each. The album starts at midnight, the beginning of "Lágnætti" ("low night"), continues through each Eyktir of the day and ends with "Náttmál" ("night time") from 21:00 to 0:00. This form of time keeping is more open than the relentless ticking of modern times, where each second is made to count, which turns humanity into cocks of the corporate clockwork. Now SÓLSTAFIR give you the antidote. Just lean back, close your eyes, take your time and lose yourself in this masterpiece called "Ótta"!

The Band:

Aðalbjörn Tryggvason | Guitar, vocals
Guðmundur Óli Pálmason | Drums
Svavar Austmann | Bass
Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson | Guitar


Forming in Iceland in 1995, Solstafir are ostensibly a black metal band and having travelled so far musically, the first decade feels more like a gestation period than genuine expression. Their latest album, ‘Ótta’ released this month through Season of Mist, is their fifth full length and follows releases such as the incredible ‘Masterpiece of Bitterness’ (2005) and the unsurpassable ‘Köld’ (2009).

Solstafir are going from strength to strength, commercially if not necessarily artistically and are set to play the venerable Damnation and Roadburn festivals. On this, their latest release Solstafir are developing on the blueprint solidified on their previous album ‘Svartir Sandar’ (2011), a fearless double LP that saw Solstafir exploring more ambient focused territories.

While the band always defined themselves through their emotiveness and chilled atmosphere, on previous releases this was always channelled through a muscular abrasiveness fitting of their black metal roots. On 'Ótta', however, most traces of that heaviness have been replaced with a bed of tranquillity and introspection. This is a shame, because it was always the raging passion with which the band played, that took them to the heights that 'Köld' saw them reach.

Ótta sees guitar leads hum where before they screamed, buried drums whisper instead of pound, and piano takes the place of what would have been plaintive guitars. Even the track ‘Til Valhallar’, the only track that attempts to sound metal, is lacklustre and suggests this is a band that not only no longer want to write such songs, but perhaps now can’t.  Vocals are a highlight of any of Solstafir’s more recent recordings, with Aðalbjörn "Addi" Tryggvason’ being one of the most understated yet perfectly fitting vocalists in metal today, his voice fitting the music like some sort of post-black metal glove. The singing is raw and masculine yet with an audible vulnerability, and even his harsh vocals have a shamelessly human quality to them that most extreme metal tries to hide.

Taken as a whole, to others this may sound like a band maturing, yet to me sounds more like a band getting old. Along with this year’s release from The Atlas Moth, 'Ótta' is an album that did not match my high expectations for a band with such obvious talent. Much like ‘War of the Roses’ was to Ulver, ‘Ótta’ sounds like a Solstafir without teeth.  Conversely, I would never want nor expect a band like Solstafir to make Köld Part Two.

They are clearly taking their unique brand of metal in a direction where their passions now lie, indeed their decision to write entirely in Icelandic (which, incidentally, sounds beautiful), being evidence of their sincerity and love of their art. The album is far from being without its merits too, and delicately rewards multiple listens.

Listen to Ótta, it will be the most subtly distinctive album you hear this month, if not necessarily the best.

Words by: Jake Mazlum

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