For the most part, Solstafir’s seventh full-length album follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, 2017’s Berdreyminn (Season of Mist). The songwriting still largely favors the band’s subdued side with influences ranging from Post Punk, Prog Rock, and Ambient greatly informing the Post Metal whole. Tracks like ‘Rokkur’ and ‘Her Fall From Grace’ are heavy on atmosphere with extensive space to breathe and ‘Or’ throws a curveball with its almost Jazz-tinged rhythms.
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.
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.
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?
“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!”
As much jealously as US metal fans claim to have when it comes to the amount quality bands, and tours Europe has, we do get some quality shows. One such tour is the recent tour from Icelandic metallers Sólstafir and gazetastic post-rockers Junius. For Junius, this was a hometown show since there are local and the place was jammed packed equally for both top bands with an occasional crossover of styles. It was cool to have a bit of a diverse bill for change, since had been seeing a lot of same-sounding bands of late. The upstairs part of the Middle East venue is a poorly lit pool of sweat on a good day, so this was a good environment to hear some heavy music.
The first band I caught was the surprising black metal merchants of Infera Bruo. They play an insane meld of sounds ranging from classic old-school black metal, to psychedelic soundscapes, to more finer-ground post-metal bleakness. In spite of having little in common with the headliners, Infera Bruo took the stage like they owned it and just made everyone in attendance cower at their form. Front man Galen is very charismatic, changing his style up vocally from a fiendish bark to a more tempered sound as the music shifted. It was also hard not to be impressed with their keyboardist Germanicus, worked his magic on synths and effects with some really classic industrial elements from his vintage gear. As a whole the band kept my attention no matter they song, and they hop from one genre to another naturally. To a man Infera Bruo are masterful performers, and it has been a long time since I was this impressed with an opener. We’ll be looking out for their next release on Bindrune Recordings with great interest.
The night had gotten off to a slow start apparently, before I even got there, so the fellas in Junius were visibly annoyed that they were late getting on stage (not due to Infera Bruo, but the venue). Junius also brings their own stage lighting, preferring to control their own atmosphere visually as well as musically. They set up quickly and with no fanfare they got underway. The crowd has swelled to the front, and lucky for a shorty like me, the band is very tall. On the smallish stage looked like giants, but even more they sounded like gods. For some bands these condition are less than ideal, but with the patience of a fine craftsmen, Junius plays passionate music for the thinking person. Opening with ‘Hiding Knives’ the band led by Joseph Martinez, took the audience on a heart-wrenching tour de force. The back lighting of the band for some reason made me think of the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs: oddly uncomfortable and bracing myself for what was to come. I don’t think the average person appreciates how hard it is to play gently and slow, since most people who play in some form of metal start out jamming with speed as their guide. Junius are not just talented, but tasteful with their choice of different layers of sounds, coloring each part of a song. Bombastic and solemn all at the same time, we witnessed some folks in the front actually moved to tears during their set. Drawing heavily on their new EP Days of The Fallen Sun (Prosthetic), they surely proved to be one of the must-see bands live in 2014.
Sólstafir was a lot more relaxed coming to the stage, but then again they were drinking and hanging out at their merch table the entire show. They definitely showed what a really successful band does, understanding that this is their lone chance to connect with the fans, hanging out, telling stories and getting very intimate with people. Although a few people left following Junius, if you were still in the house tonight, it’s because you were meant to be there. They also got down to playing immediately and opened up with a string of their more heavy rock-orientated fast numbers. I think this surprised some fans, following the dreamer sounds of earlier in the night, but it was refreshing. Aðalbjörn “Addi” Tryggvason is one of the best performers and band leaders you will ever see. Wildly passionate in his every movement, sung note, and chord that he struck, he was amazing. The entire band had an air about them, like veterans (which they are) of the metal world, and the world at large. Raucous, exciting performers, they were not unlike what I imagine a young Thin Lizzy must have been like in Dublin ca. 1975. As my fellow scribe Wren Leader whispered in my ear at one point, “they are doing Icelandic cowboy songs”. It made sense really. Great songs, no pretense about the music they make. The long set was again, heavy on fast numbers to start. The dull dark room was less suited to these bombastic numbers and I had wished they were in a bigger, better club at this point, with proper lighting and staging. Later in the show however, when the band loosed up their set and slowed things down considerable with their more doom and drone inspired work, it worked. This is where the band really shines. Even though all the songs are sung in the tongue of their homeland, the music definitely no less meaningful or effective. You could hear a few die-hards singing a long in fact! Tracks like ‘Svartir Sandar’, ‘Fjara’ will just make you weep. So heavy and deep, it wasn’t fair. I felt lucky myself to witness this epic band on US soil. I am also happy for those smart enough to make it out for this short tour, and the lucky devils who caught them in the daylight at Maryland Deathfest recently.
WORDS: KEITH (KEEFY) CHACHKES
PHOTOS: ECHOES IN THE WELL