Sólstafir is a tough band to pin down.
What is their “sound”? Are they metal? If so, what kind? Are the sort of psychedelic? Experimental? Some other genre I’ve never heard of before?
The newly released Ótta is my second experience with Sólstafir, the first being a copy of Svartir Sandar I bought last year. I actually saw them live at Iceland Airwaves in 2013 as well, but had a hard time “getting” them. I went into Svartir Sandar for a second time after that show, though, and kept an open mind, and I found myself starting to enjoy this moody music. And I even sort of managed to categorize them in my own mind. Incessant gloom metal.
Iceland can be a beautiful place. But it can also be desolate. And the Iceland that Sólstafir’s music inhabits is the later. Grey skies. Long stretches of darkness. Volcanic rock, rough seas, and wind. That constant, biting wind that ensures everything near the shore is covered with a thin layer of salt from the sea water. There is a gloom about it. A starkness. But in the gloom you can also find beauty. And that, my friends, is Ótta.
So far the acclaim for the band’s newest release has been almost universal – people can’t say enough about how awesome Sólstafir is. The first video preceded the album and created a hell of a buzz, not only because “Lágnætti” is a fantastic song, but also due to the stunning visual treatment it got by filmmakers Bowen Staines and Gunnar B. Guðbjörnsson. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading and click on THIS LINK to check it out. Then you can come back and finish up here. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.
Ótta is the cold wind. Ótta is the unrelenting sea. Ótta is miles and miles without another person in sight. It’s quiet moments, often on the piano, that build with a relentless, frenetic energy that hits you with a wall of music, before the wave breaks and takes you back to that quieter spot once again. But the reprieve is only temporary. The next wave is coming. Just like the sea that surrounds Iceland and batters its coast, day after day, year after year, century after century.
“Lágnætti” was the right choice for the first video off of the album – the piano intro is haunting and gorgeous and it alone is enough to make the song memorable. But don’t fret, my friend, this is no one-trick pony. Sólstafir comes at you again and again over Ótta‘s eight songs, half of which are over seven minutes long in order to give the band sufficient space in which to break down the barriers in your brain and reach that more primal place, the place their music touches. They change pace in a powerful way, perhaps nowhere more than on the title track “Ótta,” the middle of which lulls you into a quiet sense of loneliness and security before kicking back into gear with a near primal breakout, the mind snapping in the face of the gloom, railing against an uncaring world.
Those two songs comprise the A side of this two-record album. The B side in many ways is like a different experience, a pair of shorter (each under six minutes) songs that fall into a more traditional format/structure, though still maintaining the overall desperation of the album’s overall sound. The second disc opens aggressively with “Miðdegi,” but even here we have a slow interlude before everything kicks in once again. There is always a sort of unease surrounding the quiet parts of Sólstafir’s songs. You know the interlude can’t last and the stillness will once again give way to a wall of sound.
Ótta seems to have been released in just about every format humanly possible. There are at least seven different versions of the vinyl alone, including four different colors, all in somewhat limited size releases (mine is the edition of 900 crystal/white). Add to that multiple versions of the CD, and yes, even multiple versions of the cassette, and this is an album that you can get pretty much any way you want it, other than maybe eight track.
Sólstafir is a challenging band, and Ótta isn’t an easy album. The intensity and starkness will be a turnoff for some, as I’m sure will the non-tranditional metal sound. But if you’re willing to open up your ears and mind to Sólstafir you’ll be rewarded with a very poignant emotional experience, something that is all to rare in music these days.