Agent Fresco – Destrier

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Whatever is in the water in Iceland it should really be bottled and sold, as the island nation has been a hot bed for stunning and captivating music for a number of years. From the likes of Sigur Ros to more recently Solstafir pushing through their extreme metal underground roots to become rock mainstay, the wealth of talent coming from that corner of the Atlantic Ocean has proven particularly rich. Another addition to that list is genre melders Agent Fresco, who really are progressive with a capital P.

Five years from their debut, the sophomore release Destrier (Long Branch) comes on the back of great hardship for frontman and composer Arnor Dan Arnason, in which time he faced a late night attack which left him with a broken eye socket and emotional scars. With this comes an understandably melancholic tone throughout, as Arnason seemingly bears his pain clearly in public view, built on the conceptual idea of the medieval warhorse that bears the album’s title.

Musically it continues their trend of mind-boggling diversity which proves both complex but flowing and memorable, as it draws from a hugely diverse range of influences and styles. From comparisons to the likes of some contemporary Prog/Prog metal acts to signs of pop, indie rock, math rock and even shades of electronica, Destrier showcases a stunning range, but manages to do so with perfect cohesion and fluidity. Everything feels naturally embedded whilst all the while contributing to Agent Fresco’s core sound.

Produced in the wake of hardship and despair, Destrier is a magnificent effort that displays the pain behind it whilst simultaneously showing apparent light and positivity creeping through at times. With such a range of sonic influences at work Destrier is a genuinely rich and rewarding release which reveals more and more with each lesson, and one that actually proves definitely progressive.

 

8.5/10

CHRIS TIPPELL

Árstíðir lífsins – Aldafǫðr ok munka dróttinn

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Icelandic/German three-piece Árstíðir lífsins (Icelandic for “The Seasons of Life”) are back with a new album, Aldafǫðr ok munka dróttinn (Ván Records); an expansive, sprawling exploration of Icelandic history and culture.

This is the third record from the pagan Black Metal outfit – Árni (Drums, Viola, Cello, Vocals), Marsél (Vocals), Stefán (Guitars, Bass, Piano, Vibraphone, Vocals) – in five years, and while it reportedly explores the era of Christian conversion of Iceland circa 1000AD, you’ll be hard pressed to know it. The album is “sung entirely in Old Norse-Icelandic, with added Skaldic verses from the Icelandic sagas.”

This double-disc affair is packed with tracks that rarely clock-in at less than eight minutes long; each track is packed with enough style and time changes to fill a dozen “Kvlt” black metal outfits. The music swings from folky acoustics and haunting ambiance to raw blast beats and even death metal. The vocals range from spoken word and choirs to screeching howls, often within layers of the same song. Epic but never overly bombastic, every track is intricate, dense and atmospheric. The mood is mostly bleak and sombre but rarely strays in monotony or tedium, which is impressive given the length and complexity of what’s on show.

Authenticity is a big part of this album. While some acts that base themselves on the history and mythology of Scandinavia can often stray into easy stereotypes, this feels like a living history lesson. At 80 minutes, Aldafǫðr ok munka dróttinn is a big investment that requires your attention to be fully appreciated. But those willing to put the effort it, Árstíðir lífsins will reward with an epic listen.

 

8.0/10

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DAN SWINHOE

Hope in Melancholy – Guðmundur Óli Pálmason of Sólstafir

 

Emanating from the nucleus of the nascent Black Metal scene, Iceland’s Sólstafir has never been the type of act to be pigeonholed in a genre or tied to a movement. Proudly sporting influences ranging as wide as Darkthrone, Goth stalwarts Fields Of The Nephilim and The Smashing Pumpkins, drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason gave us insight into what makes this bold outfit tick. “Darkthrone has the raw energy and punk attitude, Fields of the Nephilim create the most beautiful, dark atmosphere and beautiful guitar melodies, and The Smashing Pumpkins have really influenced especially Addi’s guitar playing, the way he uses octaves for example.”

New album, Ótta (Season of Mist) blends all the bands aforementioned influences to create something which is truly transcendent of both genre limitations and the idea of being connected to any kind of ‘scene’. Based on an elaborate concept relating to the Icelandic timetable Eykt, Pálmason explains passionately how this ancient calendar inspired the new opus. ‘All the names of the songs are based on an Old Icelandic way to tell the time of day, called Eyktir. “Before people generally had clocks they’d estimate the time of day by the sun. In Iceland we’d divide the day into 8 parts, so each spanning roughly 3 modern hours. When Sæþór brought our attention to this old system we immediately realized it would make for a perfect theme for an album. The album starts at Lágnætti (Low Night) and continues through the night. Ótta is the time between 3 and 6 in the morning. Then it’s time to rise with the sun at Rismál, at Dagmál the day is fully begun. Miðdegi is midday and Nón is noon, although in this system noon is not at 12:00 sharp but rather the time between 3pm and 6pm. After that comes Miðaftan or mid-afternoon and finally Náttmál, or night time.”

The lyrics are loosely based on the different feelings of the different times of day. But the times of day are also different depending on the seasons. Some have a more wintery feeling, while others are more associated with summer. Considering their band name originates from the Icelandic word for the sun’s rays, this concept could not be any more fitting for the group.

Creating atmosphere and mood is clearly more a concern to these self-professed ‘Heathen cowboy bastards’. Ótta sees the band moving further away from the metallic elements but still with some great guitar work adding new textures and layers. The cinematic feel of spaghetti westerns characterised by the work of influential composer Ennio Morricone are recalled in Ótta’. Was this a conscious influence?

solstafir

 

Ennio Morricone has been a massive influence on us.’ Pálmason Confirmed. ‘Saepor brought in this hook that sounded like a country or bluegrass part. We laughed at first but when Addi tuned his guitar to A it really worked. We knew that was the moment it had to be played on the banjo. We checked the metal rule book 101 and that doesn’t mention you cannot use it in a metal song, so we did! I don’t think there is a limit to the instrumentation we can employ in this band. If we think it will benefit our music we will use it.”

Their unique culture has shaped Sólstafir’s output. The band remains resolutely against singing in anything other than their mother tongue having stated that to sing in English “Would be completely unnatural”. It is this determination to go against the grain, remaining faithful only to their own muse which has garnered the Icelandic act such a hallowed reputation. Recording in the remote area outside of Reykavík with Sigur Ros/Alcest producer Birgir Jon Bigirsson at the helm the album incorporates new elements such as strings and the aforementioned banjo to great effect. “We recorded in Sundlaugin which is a studio that Sigur Ros had converted from an old swimming pool. It has a little river running next to it and some trees. I think these beautiful picturesque surroundings really helped us make the album. We used a lot of different guitars and equipment we have not used before. The mix of old and new instruments really challenged us to push ourselves to the next level. we wanted to create a record that sounds timeless.’ Pálmason confirms that the band may admire other artists but he sees Solstafir has having little in common with other artists. ‘I think acts like Alcest have come from different directions from ourselves and continue to move further still. The one thing I see in common with acts like that is both acts try and develop our sound which each album.”

Indeed the bewitching string arrangements are an aspect which makes ‘Ótta’ such a wondrous journey. Pálmason explains how this development came about; “We have been wanting to use strings for a long time, but somehow there was never any need for them, so this time we were very conscious about leaving out some space for the strings. I must say the Amiina string quartet did an amazing job!”

 

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ROSS BAKER