2nd September 2014 - Season of Mist
Icelandic post-metal group Sólstafir are a favourite around these parts. Their output thus far in their career has been entirely top notch, with four studio albums previous to this year’s Ótta, and each one presenting a unique sound but being great in its own right. Kold felt like a spiritual journey – almost a vision quest – whereas Svartir Sandar was almost like a physical trip through the land of fire and ice that is Sólstafir’s homeland. So how does Ótta stack up?
The answer to that question is “absolutely fucking brilliantly.” Sólstafir’s ability to create stunning music has always been apparent, and it seemed they had reached a pinnacle with the deeply moving “Fjara” from Svartir Sandar.
Every track on Ótta accomplishes what “Fjara” did, and way more. The emotions stirred by this album are unlike anything I’ve heard before. Vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason has a stellar voice, expressing the entire spectrum of the experience of existence in a few simple passages. “Dagmál” is a lovely example of his abilities, ranging from quiet, personal crooning, to rough wailing, all soaked in feeling. If this album fails to move anything in you, then you are a soulless monster.
The guitar work here, also courtesy of Aðalbjörn Tryggvason as well as Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson, is wonderful. It rings with intensity and shimmers oh so splendidly, moving between heavy and ethereal, and yet managing to encompass both at the same time. It is light and dark, and yet neither one. They play off each other in spectacular fashion – the rich guitar lead in “Nón” a particular highlight. That same lead diminishes into a floaty atmospheric part before the song is allowed to build up again into a truly resplendent passage that finishes the song with a seriously emotive punch.
The drumming on Ótta it’s not overly complex – something that would feel silly in this setting – so drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason keeps things simple, yet manages to evoke purpose and a sense of relaxed drive. It is a small thing that manages to add so much to the music. Bassist Svavar Austman’s contributions cannot be forgotten either; the bass is always a foundation for a band, though on this album perhaps a more apt comparison would be “the road for the music to plant its feet on.”
The final element is the presence of piano, strings, organs, and the banjo. For the most part, these parts provide added deftness – an added layer here or there – but they’re not the focus; in the final song “Náttmál”, there is an organ working away in the back of the mix, adding a sublime touch. There is also what sounds like a string section in a transition before the song picks up into a grand heavy passage with more prominent organ use. However, in some songs, those instruments are the driving force; the aforementioned title track is one, and another is “Miðaftann” which is almost entirely just piano and Tryggvason’s voice, coming together to create a haunting ballad.
The title track is possibly one of the best to be composed in the last few years. It begins slowly with sparse instrumentation, and builds from there into something with drive and intensity. The main focus is a banjo line which steadily winds its way through everything else. By the end of the song some achingly gorgeous strings have wandered into the mix, leaving the listener with chills and tears in their eyes.
The lyrics are all sung in Icelandic, but while most may not be able to sing along, it is very easy to understand: this is an album forged from pure, deep emotion. It’s almost story-like in its build, leaving me to wonder if it is perhaps a concept album.
When it comes to an ambitious album of this sort, the production absolutely has to be perfect or else something will get lost. Luckily, Sólstafir received one of the finest mixing and mastering jobs ever put to disc. Everything in it is perfectly in place, and every single note comes through with astounding clarity. The atmosphere is chilly but welcoming, like a dawn with the sun just creeping through misty mountains and illuminating the forests and snow.
Unless something incredibly surprising and unexpected happens, Ótta will be album of the year this year. It is an extraordinary culmination of seemingly every emotion that a human being could possibly experience, and ones that we cannot. It is purposeful, beautiful, remarkably ambitious, and pure. Sólstafir have always been an excellent band, but in creating Ótta they have built and album that is quite possibly absolutely flawless from back to front. Production-wise it is breath-taking, and composition wise it is beyond anything most bands ever accomplish.