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4 stars "So, you know how post metal seems like a great idea in concept, but the vast majority of it is overlong and dull atmospheric sludge? This one like, isn't." - me, on the discovery of Sólstafir's 2009 album Köld, circa 2013

The whole debate that is continuously raging about post-metal/atmospheric sludge metal and whether or not post-metal is a genre or if it's all atmosludge or whatever really begs a big, glaring question - if all post-metal is atmosludge, then why doesn't actual post-metal exist. All it needs to do is take a good post-rock album and add some heavy guitars to it, why is it that every notable band in this area feels the need to fill their music up with godawful vocals and repetitive as hell riffs straight out of the sludge metal camp? It's not as if post-metal and sludge are intrinsically linked, you can certainly have one without the other, but it seems that in order to be a post-metal band you either need to be instrumental or have sludge metal vocals and riffs thrown all over the place. Where is the metal equivalent of Sigur Rós? Or even just Explosions in the Sky?

While Köld did sort of attempt to answer my question, by playing heavy, texture-oriented metal music that had an appreciated shortage of sludge metal elements, instead electing for clean vocals a good deal of the time, and even bringing some faster, non-doomy riffs into the fold for the heavier sections, I was never fully grasped by it. Stylistically it was nearly what I wanted from post-metal, but compositionally it fell short in a good number of ways. It was overlong and repetitive, and the semi-harsh vocals bordered on cringeworthy and annoying, not to mention that the sheer density and heaviness of this sort of music gets very draining as a listener.

Ótta, admittedly, is only my second encounter with this band, so any comparisons are a bit uneducated and are only really with regards to Köld, but I definitely feel that at least some of the compositional troubles I had with that record have been remedied here, even if they have been replaced with some other problems. The most obvious stylistic changes that Sólstafir have made with this album are the overall reduction in metal elements and the choice to sing all lyrics in their native Icelandic, which, combined with the fact that string group Amiina appear on this record, gets a few hundreds of people screaming "SIGUR ROS WORSHIP" at the top of their lungs. But despite the similarities, and my honest wish for a heavier, darker version of ( )-era Sigur Rós, this isn't really all too similar. The quiet moments with piano and strings that feature Ađalbjörn singing Icelandic in a softer and more emotive voice do kind of sort of bring them to mind, but the influence is nowhere near as clear as some are claiming.

As for the dropping of the metal elements, I am all for it in this instance, despite my well-known love for crushing crescendos. It does feel that every timbre and sound that the band build their softer sections out of sounds excellent and smooth and well placed, but I can't say the same about their heavy sections - the guitars are still linked too heavily to sludge, and have a tone that is so over-distorted that it loses power, so I find myself being drawn to the softer parts far more. The standouts on this album happen around the bookends, with the opening and closing tracks being my particular favourites. "Lágnćtti" is pretty much a classic long-winded post-rock-with- vocals build track, steadily raising the intensity every minute or so to a slightly elevated level. But what really makes it fantastic are the piano melodies, especially when accentuated with Amiina's strings. The motif melodies throughout this album are excellent, and along with some of the ambience in the softer sections, is definitely the album's best point. Although it does get a bit crescendocore, "Náttmál" is the albums culmination and highest point, carrying a wonderful energy throughout the track starting with an awesome section at around 2:30. The album's title track is another interesting one, with a rather strange lead motif that sounds straight out of Devin's Casualties of Cool album, ambient and driving, with a bit of a country twang to it. And as corny as that might sound on paper, it works quite well, with some of the strings soaring around the top reminding me of the way country artists use harmonicas for atmosphere.

However, as much as I enjoy some of the compositions here, and I do think Sólstafir have somewhat remedied the long-winded and boring parts I've found from them in the past, the one thing I just simply can't enjoy too much are their vocals, and despite my love of Sigur Rós, they seem to have gotten even more irritating with the change to full Icelandic lyrics. When Jónsi sings in Icelandic, it's ambient and ethereal, and you can barely hear any of the syllables he makes. But on Ótta, Ađalbjörn's vocals have to change between relatively clean sung to ferocious bellowing, and it really makes you realise what a hard, consonant-heavy language Icelandic is. And it just doesn't fit, at all. The softer vocals are tolerable, but the loud, intense, semi-harsh vocals just don't work at all. Similar to a language like German, there are just too many hard sounds and changing syllables to properly get any impact. And it doesn't help that I'm not the biggest fan of his vocal tone, either.

The only other major problem with this record is one that many others have pointed out, and is one that is common with a lot of music in this area - it runs out of steam rather quickly. I can say that every song has a motif or idea that I like, and the band have no shortage of melodic skill, but this is very tiring and draining music to sit through, and this album's 58-minute length can feel like 80 sometimes. I wouldn't call much of this 'filler', but a song like "Dagmál" could have been easily dropped with no loss, especially given the fact that it just sounds like a shoegaze-ier and Icelandic version of "Love is the Devil" from Köld.

From a melodic and compositional perspective, this is an undeniably strong album, bringing some wonderful and beautiful melodies into the fold. From a stylistic perspective, this is a pretty decent change, the songs feel more concise (but not concise enough), and the sludge metal parts are used more sparingly, although I am definitely not a fan of the Icelandic lyrics shift. On the whole this is certainly a better album than Köld, and shows Solstafir shifting their sound enough to try and stay relevant, but I can't help but feel they have something more in them that they aren't fully giving.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Report this review (#1316630)
Posted Friday, November 28, 2014 | Review Permalink
4 stars It was very sad news for me to read a couple of months back that drummer Gudmundur Oli Pamason (spelled here without the Icelandic letters) had been kicked out of the band in January. He wrote a long explanation of the recent events occurring between him and his former band mates on Wordpress. I got to know of Solstafir several years ago through Gudmundur's mother who had become a friend of mine via a blog site and we maintain our friendship on Facebook. Gummi (as he is also known) is also a very talented photographer and artist and responsible for much of Solstafir's artwork. He started the band 20 years ago with Addi (vocalist Adalbjorn Tryggvason) and poured his life's energy into keeping the band going. I have exchanged some personal comments with him on Flickr about his photographs and he has left a few comments on mine. But more so, his mother and I continue to be good friends over the Internet, and so when I saw the link to the Wordpress site she posted, I was deeply saddened to read what it said.

Though I had known about Solstafir for a few years, I hesitated to buy an album. I was certain that extreme metal, sludge, post metal, and any kind of screamo / aggro metal was not for me. But thanks to my interest in progressive rock and metal, I came around to purchasing albums by Mastadon, Anathema, and Baroness and liked many of the songs. Then Gummi's mom posted last autumn on Facebook about the band's latest album, Otta, and the concept so intrigued me that I thought it was time to buy a CD. For reasons that would make this preamble even longer were I too explain, my order was delayed and I only finally got the CD in the mail at the end of May this year.

On my first listen, I was surprised at how slow and sedate some of the music was. There were many atmospheric moments with strings and piano or simple repeated notes or chords or guitar effects that made this music easy on the ears. I read some reviews of the album and listened again. Yes, there was definitely an atmosphere here, something like the bare B&W misty landscape scene in the CD booklet. There was cold, and loneliness, and there was solitude and isolation. Yet there was warmth and at times energy and power.

I listened again and again, finding each time that I liked the album more and more. Addi's vocals are full of emotion and expression and not the screamo type or death growls that I thought I might hear. He can raise his voice to impassioned shouting when the music calls for it, but he can also squeeze emotion from his voice in tender places, too. I was and am reminded of Anathema at times and there's a bit of similarity to Baroness here and there. But I am struck with the overall impression that this is a beautiful album and great for listening to when one is in the mood. Though not very technical or complex, the songs seem to have been crafted more with the focus being on casting a mood. The concept of 'Otta' is eight songs, one for each of the eight three- hour time periods of the Old Norse day. My enjoyment of this album had me considering getting a hold of one or two other Solstafir albums and I still might do that, though perhaps this is Solstafir's penultimate release.

I do hope things work out between Gummi and the rest of the band, even though the best result may be in Gummi getting a fair deal in royalties for his contributions to the band in his artwork and drumming and then moving on. It is such a pity to read this sad news after I only just finally got a Solstafir album home. Unfortunately, the latest update on his site says things are as sour as ever and it has become time to stop falsely hoping for friendship to win over and call in the lawyers. Most unfortunate. But that is the music business, is it not?

Report this review (#1446693)
Posted Wednesday, July 29, 2015 | Review Permalink
Heavy Prog & JR/F/Canterbury Teams
4 stars Awesome atmospheric Post Metal/Post Rock from these Icelandic rockers. As fellow prog reviewer Gallifrey pointed out, this what Sigur Rós might sound like if they were more metal, the music is very much in the vein of SIGUR RÓS and EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY. The nuances and subtleties on this album are so worth paying attention to, so gorgeous and powerful, that I highly recommend the headphone treatment. They are, after all, timing and titling their songs after the Old Icelandic monastic tradition of three hour increments, called "monastic hours."

Favorite songs: the emotional and stunningly gorgeous almost chamber music of 7. "Midaftann" (5:39) (10/10); the very Sigur Rós-sounding 2. "Ótta" (9:38) (10/10); 1. "Lágnatti" (8:48) (10/10); 8. "Náttmála" (11:15) (8/10), and; 6. "Nón" (7:47) (8/10).

Solid four star album: excellent addition to any prog rock music collection.

Report this review (#1497908)
Posted Wednesday, December 9, 2015 | Review Permalink

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