Part of the role of a music critic is to separate the wheat from the chaff; the superlative from the humdrum; the lasting glory from the flash in the pan. Additionally, part of the role of music critic is to explain, elucidate and comment on what something sounds like as well as whether it sounds any good at all. Forgive me then, readers, as I am speechless. Absolutely, unequivocally, speechless.
Otta (Season of Mist), the latest album from Icelandic musical vagabonds Sólstafir is one of the most uncompromising and challenging records that you are likely to hear this year; it is also one of the most compelling. Forego any pre-conceived ideas you might have about what this might sound like or what pigeon hole it’s supposed to drop into; that simply will not do. It won’t do at all. Otta is artistic self-expression par excellence; as a manifestation of single mindedness, it takes some beating. What the band have created is, by some margin, the most brilliant demonstration of their art to date and a contender for the album of the year.
Choosing to sing in their native Icelandic is an uncompromising decision in a market place where non English speakers are often treated with almost voyeuristic curiosity. On Otta, the decision seems entirely natural and unforced, taking the inflective beauty of the band’s mother tongue and imbuing the album’s eight songs here with a vocal experience of almost existential beauty. It matters not that your understanding of what is being sung is little, (it’s based on an ancient Icelandic tradition of a solar day, in case you were wondering) the music, artistry and heartfelt passion of the deliverance of these songs is more than enough.Aðalbjörn Tryggvason’s vocals across the entire album are quite extraordinary; from aching fragility to bellicose defiance, it is a performance that, like the whole album, defies categorisation, but is deserving of the highest praise.
There are many reasons why Otta works but here are two key ones: firstly, it sounds uniquely Sólstafir and Sólstafir don’t sound like anything else you have heard. Admittedly, you might be able to detect echoes of other bands, of other singers but not delivered with this verve, guile and eccentric charm. Second, Otta is an aural experience like no other: this is an immersive, emotional and evocative album, multi-layered, nuanced and brimming with pulsating and invigorating ideas; it is music for the head as much as the heart.
Otta is a swirling, bubbling, melting pot of an album: and a genuine album (as opposed to a series of individual tracks) it most certainly is. As a listening experience, it is perhaps old fashioned in having a narrative arc that compels you to listen from its startlingly fragile opening, through the half anticipated yet still hugely invigorating middle section of ‘Miodegi’ and ‘Non’ to the exhausting coda of ‘Nattmal’ but listen you MUST as you will be richly rewarded by this powerful, idiosynscratic and utterly brilliant album.