Sólstafir – “Berdreyminn” (2017)

Yesterday was my last day at Really Big Company. It was a great experience there over the past 18 years and I’ll miss a lot of the folks I worked with, but I got an opportunity at Much Smaller Company In The Same Industry that was too good and exciting to pass up so I decided to take the plunge. The one downside of the new gig is a longer and more frequent commute, but there’s a positive element of that too as it’ll give me more time for listening to podcasts, NPR radio stories about the clown car that is American politics these days, and catching up on new music. I mention the above because I find myself sitting at home on a gray, cold, rainy June Friday with nowhere to be and nothing to do. I shouldn’t be wearing a sweatshirt in June, but I am. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to blog about this morning the mood seemed right for something a bit cold in its own right, perhaps a bit gloomy like the gray sky outside with the one lone bright spot where the sun is trying to burn it’s way through. I speak, of course, of Sólstafir.

Sólstafir is a band I feel like I should be way more into than I am. I have their last two albums, 2014s Ótta and 2011s Svartir Sandar, and while I enjoyed both, neither managed to grab hold of me and make it into regular rotation. Many of my Icelandophile-music friends are huge fans of the band, but much like my ambivalence towards The Sugarcubes for whatever reason I seem to have missed the boat. But Berdreyminn is new and fan forums indicate the band’s sound has changed, so I’m interested to see what they’re doing differently. I’m also curious how much of this is related to the 2015 firing of founding member and drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, which he has chronicled online HERE (♠); has the loss of their drummer impact how the band writes its songs and their overall sound? I don’t know… but let’s drop the needle and let the music speak for itself.

There are at least a few things about Berdreyminn that fit the traditional Sólstafir model. The songs are all very long – of the eight tracks only two clock in at under seven minutes, and one of those two is only six seconds shy (“Ísafold” is a radio-friendly 4:58). Due to the length the vinyl comes as a double album, just as their previous two releases did, and our friends at Season of the Mist seem to have put it out in just about every color combination possible, all in limited editions. These days I’m not a completest like I was in my younger years (thankfully), when such a number of different versions would have driven me completely insane. The copy I’m reviewing is the “clear black marbled” edition of 800.

It didn’t take long to start to understand why some of the band’s fans were disappointed with Berdreyminn, because it does feel like a change of pace from their previous works. The A side tracks “Silfur-Refur” and “Ísafold” don’t have the sheer gloomy weight of their predecessors, instead moving in a more approachable (i.e. the dreaded “mainstream”) direction. However, as a non-superfan myself, I find these songs interesting and, dare I say it, even a bit catchy. It took a moment to get over the surprise of “Ísafold”‘s synthesizer opening, and much of its guitar work is reminiscent of something I can’t quite put my finger on, but as a complete package it holds up, giving us some of Sólstafir’s trademark intricacy and the familiar anguished vocals, just with a bit less intensity. Moving to the B side, “Hula” reminds me of their earlier stuff with the use of piano and almost operatic vocals, but once again it doesn’t carry the same sheer mass and desperation that framed Ótta. While the emotional power of their last album held a certain artistic appeal, at times it could be a bit overwhelming to my ears; so while others may find “Hula” a bit “watered-down” it has the right amount of intensity for me. The C side opener “Hvít Sæng” is probably the closest Sólstafir to the density of their last couple of albums, though more so in terms of mood than pure raw power. “Bláfjall” orbits this same space, bringing more aggression and drive than any other part of the album.

Berdreyminn may prove to be a good introduction to Sólstafir, giving the new listener something more approachable and serving as a gateway drug into their heavier material.

(♠) The band itself has been relatively quiet about the split, which they announced on Facebook HERE.

Sólstafir – “Ótta” (2014)

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 Óttas 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.

Legend / Sólstafir – “Fjara / Runaway Train” split 7″ (2014)

I was super excited when I heard that the great Icelandic bands Legend and Sólstafir were releasing a split single, with each band covering a song of the other. The vinyl version was limited to 300 copies – 140 black, 90 silver, and 70 red; there was also a cassette version released in a whole bunch of different colors too. As soon as I learned of it back in October I ordered my copy.

Due to various unforeseen circumstances, it took a while for this sucker to come out. But on Record Store Day, of all days, it arrived in my mailbox. While I had just returned home with a stack of new vinyl, this was the one I was the most excited about giving a spin.

Side A features Legend’s version of Sólstafir’s “Fjara,” from their 2011 double album Svartir Sandar which I actually posted about a while back. Krummi’s vocals are PERFECT for covering Sólstafir, and Halldor knows how to create a sonic soundscape that captures the dreariness of the original. About half way through they combine to kick it up a notch and switch from something similar to the original, to a purely Legend track, which was a great and unexpected twist. They started with something that stayed somewhat true to the original, then exploded out and made it their own. Nice.

Sólstafir performs Legend’s “Runaway Train” on side B, a staple of their live set and a truly relentless song. Oh man, Sólstafir absolutely put their own stamp all over this one. They sort of did the reverse of what Legend did on their track – the first part is a melancholy Sólstafir version of this song (playing it in their own style), and then it flips to a more fast tempo Legend-like style, though Sólstafir still keep their distinctive wall of sound, which is totally different than the “cleaner,” more precise sound of the original. I was surprised that they selected “Runaway Train” instead of something like “City” or “Devil In Me,” but they killed it.

These are two bands I like, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing both live at Airwaves – Sólstafir once and Legend three times. They’re both fantastic in their own rights, and I was impressed with how they branched out on these covers. Both bands play a sort of doom and gloom style of music, though taking different approaches to the same overall mood. I was intrigued that, at least to my ears, both songs seemed to start in the style of Sólstafir before making a sudden, violent departure to take on Legend-style intensity. I’m not sure if this was intentional, accidental, or if I’m just over-thinking it, but regardless it created something very intriguing to me.

I’m not sure if/where you can find this, as the entire original run is sold out. I saw one copy each of the vinyl and cassette on Discogs with an asking price of about $40 apiece, which is certainly pretty steep. But don’t despair, my friends, as it appears that there is a limited edition 7″ reprint… that comes with the cassette copy too, available HERE! So don’t say I didn’t tell you – go out and order your copy now!

Record Store Day 2014

I approached Record Store Day 2014 with both excitement and apprehension, as usual. Excitement because there was so much cool stuff on the schedule for release; apprehension because I know it’s just one big mess at a lot of the stores, mostly due to people’s boorish behavior. My #1 want was Mudhoney’s On Top: KEXP Presents Mudhoney Live on Top of the Space Needle, though given that (1) it was limited to 2,700 copies and (2) I live in the band’s “home” town of Seattle, I figured my chances were slim unless I wanted to camp out. Which I didn’t. And I didn’t get a copy.

Regardless, Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane and I hopped in the vinylmobile this morning, got coffee, and headed to Easy Street Records in West Seattle. We arrived at just after 7AM, which is when the doors opened. People were still funneling in from the outside, and I have to say it was at least somewhat organized and I didn’t see anyone acting like a complete and total asshole. The guy behind me in line had already been through once and was carrying a huge stack of vinyl (including the elusive Mudhoney, damn him!) back upstairs where all the 12″ records were, having come back downstairs for a few minutes to scour the 7″ and 10″ releases. He let me know I was way too late for Mudhoney (thanks guy), which was confirmed by the dude working upstairs (Easy Street only got half of what they tried to get in their order). Oh well.

2014rsd1As you can see, it was crowded as hell, but more or less orderly which was nice. I picked up the Half Japanese Volume One: 1981-1985 three record set (includes download card… thank you!) along with the limited edition (I believe Seattle exclusive) red vinyl re-release of Screaming Trees Last Words: The Final Recordings before taking my place in line. And slooooowwwwllllyyy winding my way through the store to the cash registers, which took about an hour (no joke). Fortunately the trip took me through every section downstairs, including used CDs and all the 7″ records, so I also snagged Foals Live at the Royal Albert Hall that someone had discarded, a Caspar Babypants 7″, and a used CD of Mudhoney covering songs by The Sonics, which is cool.

That was a pretty respectable haul, but there was one specialty item that Easy Street wasn’t carrying, but that the Seattle branch of Silver Platters was: Eilon Paz’s monster record collector book Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting. If you haven’t checked out Eilon’s website devoted to vinyl collector profiles, you really should both because his interviews are great and his photography is fantastic. So we headed to Silver Platters and got there about 20 minutes after they opened. I initially intended only to look for the Mudhoney record and the book, but of course was immediately distracted by the huge selection of RSD titles and in short order found myself carrying Ice-T Greatest Hits, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with the 3D cover, the Pagans what’s this shit? 1977/1979, and the RSD special picture disc version of Motörhead‘s newest album Aftershock. Oh yeah, and a copy of the book I actually came for!

2014rsd2The line here was crazy long as well, but with one more cash register open than Easy Street had, it actually moved surprisingly fast – it took us maybe 30 minutes to get through. And to top it off, when we got home what was waiting for me in the mailbox? The split Legend / Sólstafir limited edition 7″ I ordered like six months ago! Score!

Now, I don’t have kids, so I’ve never been able to experience how much portable electronics have made it easier to travel with the little ones. I mean, the best I could do on a long car trip or flight when I was young was draw, read, or play with my G.I. Joes, all of which gets old pretty quick when you’re a kid and are stuck in a seat. But I have to say that having a smart phone takes the edge off of standing in line. Texting with Travis of the Guerrilla Candy blog and reading/posting RSD updates on FB with my friends helped pass the time quite a bit. As, of course, did listening to the conversations going on around me, some of which were replete with complaining girlfriends (“this line isn’t moving at all”) and various levels of music and movie snobbery.

You know, despite not getting the one record I really, really, really, really (really!) wanted, it was a very positive RSD experience. I got some cool and unexpected stuff, more material for the blog! And I’ll probably just break down and go onto eBay and get a copy of that Mudhoney record. I’ll pay “too much,” but at least I’ll have it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.