I bought Svartir Sandar on vinyl last year at Reykjavik’s Smekkleysa store, a.k.a. Bad Taste Records, the label/record store formed by members of the Sugarcubes way back when as a means of putting out the stuff they liked. It’s a small shop but has a decent selection, and when I saw the record there I figured it was worth a shot. I’d heard a bit about Sólstafir over the years but never caught them live, and they tend to have very passionate fans – I probably see more people in Reykjavik wearing the band’s shirts and hoodies than those of every other group combined. Add to that the fact my friend Bowen is a fan, and I knew at some point I was going to have to see what the fuss was about. I played the record once upon our return, didn’t know what to make of it, and admittedly never went back to it again.
Fast forward about six months to Iceland Airwaves 2013, and we caught Sólstafir on the festival’s second day at Harpa. They were decent, but I felt like I was missing something. They’re one of those bands that makes me think, “I feel like I should like these guys a lot, but I’m just not sure.” I described them in a post about that show as “a bit droning, sort of Icelandic cowboys (based on how they were dressed) singing like old Alice in Chains,” which is neither complimentary nor insulting, but simply my perceptions. Well you know what? This is one of those mornings where Icelandic cowboy rockers singing like Alice in Chains seems appropriate – here in Seattle it’s cold, foggy, and dark outside. It might snow in the next day or too. After all, the English translation of the title of their 2011 release is Season of Mist. It’s Sólstafir weather. So why not get a cup of coffee and give ’em a spin?
Sólstafir’s sound is difficult to categorize. The most common label thrown at them is “metal,” usually preceded by some type of subgenre identifier – post-metal, progressive metal, new wave metal… take your pick, not that it really matters. The truth is that Sólstafir’s music is hard to pin down and relate to more familiar bands. And that, my friends, is never (OK… almost never…) a bad thing. And about two minutes after dropping the needle I found myself starting to get it.
Svartir Sandar opens brilliantly with “Ljós í Stormi,” an 11:35 masterpiece of incessant power. This isn’t fast metal. It’s heavy metal. It has weight and density to it, much like that fog outside my living room window. Addi Tryggvason’s vocals cry out, reaching from the melancholy depths of the music, trying to break out into freedom. You feel like the music is a dark, foreboding forest and he’s desperately trying to escape, but everywhere he turns there are more trees, more shadows, and more fog. The other track on side A of the two record vinyl set (over 75 minutes of music!) is “Fjara,” a song along a similar vein though with music that reaches out of the depths of the opener “Ljós í Stormi” and strives to move to a more epic sounding place, though still played at a pace that begs to move faster… but the band keeps it steady, giving the song the pent up power of a compressed spring waiting to release. The backing choral vocals in the chorus allow the song to make it’s desperate reaches to glory, coming together beautifully, and if I didn’t know better I’d have thought that Tryggvason was actually singing a Bloodgroup song at a couple of points, which just shows he has a great voice. “Fjara” was an unlikely candidate to have made it to the top of the Icelandic singles chart, but then again there’s nothing normal about the Icelandic music scene. At all.
Svartir Sandar maintains a fairly consistent sound throughout, with “Kukl” perhaps reaching the deepest depths of desperation. By time I got about half way through side C I found myself itching for Sólstafir to break loose, even if for just one song, and just get fast. They get pretty close on the closing song of the side, “Stormfari,” which kicks up the pace and tempo, but it’s also one of the shortest tracks on the album and all it did was left me wanting more. I wanted these guys to really shred just once, but that is the power of their sound.
I’m glad I came back to Svartir Sandar and gave it another chance. It’s a solid album and I think Sólstafir brings something pretty unique to the table. They recently recorded a split 7″ with another of my Icelandic favorites, Legend, on which each band covers a song by the other, and I’m looking forward to hearing their version of “Runaway Train” as well.