• "Authentic Icelandic culture at its very best": A review of Sólstafir's "Ótta"

    Ladies and gentlemen,

    Here comes my review of the latest record of Icelandic post-rock quartet Sólstafir.  I was able to see this atmospheric band live in concert in Ottawa last week. Enjoy my review and this unique kind of music. Please don't forget to leave a comment.

    Sólstafir - Ótta (2014)

    The four Icelandic cowboys deliver their fifth full length release which offers once more a slow-paced mixture of highly atmospheric post-rock and slow-paced neofolk with a slightly noisy vintage touch. The decent use of lethargic piano sounds, longing string sections and dreamy banjos add to the melancholic and unclean guitar riffs, the somber bass guitar and the oppressive drum patterns. The fascinating Icelandic lyrics somewhere between natural roughness and poetic beauty only add to the coherent concept that distinguishes this unique band from stylistically similar artists like Agalloch, Opeth and Ulver. The emotional vocals even remind me of completely different bands since Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand and Mando Diao come to my mind.

    Sólstafir delivers a conceptual record based on an Icelandic system of time that starts and ends at midnight. The different tracks represent very well the eight segments of a day. The songs that portray nocturnal hours are epic, hypnotizing and lugubrious. The calm, lethargic and menacing opener “Lágnætti” has an almost nightmarish vintage feeling that sets the atmosphere for the entire release straight. The track features laid back passages carried by spiritual clean vocals, enchanting piano melodies and elegant violin sounds but also has a few scarier up-tempo parts with massive distorted guitar riffs, upbeat rhythm sections and nearly hysterical vocals. Our northern crepuscular rays keep the opener’s sophisticated level with the outstanding neofolk epic and worthy title track “Ótta” that starts with lethargic and uneasy melodies and slowly evolves towards a more liberating and noisier instrumental section with passionate screams that is accentuated by the cleaner banjo patterns and epic string sections. These two tracks are filled with existential yet usually contradicting emotions that fusion to a complex unity. There is sophisticated elegance in all the simplistic chaos, there is natural beauty in all the nightmarish ugliness and there are bright shades of light in all the drowning darkness.

    The tunes that portray the hours between the early morning and noon are much shorter and to the point, more dynamical and straight and also catchier and more engaging. These tracks still have a dark and mysterious undertone but they are less gloomy and oppressing than the longer tunes. "Miðdegi" could qualify as a vivid alternative rock track in the key of The Strokes or The White Stripes for example and has radio potential.

    By the end of the record, the band goes back to the more playful and somber tunes of the beginning in order to close the circle. "Nón" is a transitional track that features both numbing and relaxing breaks with minimalistic melodies as well as really fast and mean passages with an aggressive and vivid bass sound, energizing and almost chaotic drum patterns and above all quite fast and loud guitar riffs. 

    The last two songs slow things down with eerie sound effects, melancholic piano melodies and epic string sections. The band still keeps a little surprise for us. “Náttmál” is a more introspective track that could have ended the album on a perfectly coherent note but the band chose instead to separate the track into two segments since the last three and a half clipped minutes of “Náttmál” lead to a rocking climax that is more rhythm orientated than the first two thirds of this epic album closer. The final moments of this album are a moving duel between progressive rock sounds with haunting keyboard passages on one side and alternative post-rock with noisy bass, roaring guitars and thunderous drums on the other side. This may not be the most coherent ending but it works extremely well as a final climax and fitting surprise for the listener. 

    Despite the ambitious conceptual frame, the band manages to deliver a diversified, entertaining and inspired listening experience that is much more accessible than one could think at first contact. This record should please to fans of atmospheric post-rock but also experimental alternative rock while people who enjoy oppressing doom metal and introspective neofolk should also give this ambitious release a fair chance. The album might take a few spins to open up due its complex topic and length but it keeps getting more and more intense with each spin. Each time I listened to this album, I had another new favourite song depending on my personal mood. This is a sophisticated piece of art that drags you into a fascinating world of darkness, folklore and nature and represents Icelandic culture very well.

    Final rating: nine out of ten points

    Please support the band and check out the following links:

    Bandcamp: http://solstafir.bandcamp.com/

    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/solstafirice

    Homepage: http://www.solstafir.net/

    Here is a live recording from the band's concert at the 2014 edition of Hellfest in Clisson, France:


    Set list:

    1.)     1.) Ljós í Stormi

    2.)     2.) Svartir Sandar

    3.)     3.) Ótta

    4.)     4.) Pale Rider

    5.)     5.) Fjara

     6.) Goddess of the Ages

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