Iceland is a popular place these days in many ways and has become somewhat known for surprising people. The nation’s soccer (football) team shocked the sports world in 2016 in reaching the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, defeating England in the process, a plucky team in every sense of the word; its people shocked the world when they became the first high profile case against the bankers who nearly collapsed the nation’s economy in 2008; and its arts scene has flourished for many years with its most popularly notable music coming from the likes of The Sugarcubes, Bjork, and Sigur Ros with a bevy of other popular acts lingering ever so slightly in the shadows having successfully traversed Europe and elsewhere.
One of the elements that appears over and over again within Icelandic artistic circles is the concept of a certain deliberate tranquility that hints at a richness in its subtle depth. The seemingly national emphasis on a sense of self-reliance tied into a reverence for their natural surroundings amongst its people can be felt from the paintings of Þórarinn Þorláksson to the bombastic expanse of sound for which Sigur Ros has become famous. Through it all, Icelandic proverbs pop up now and again, oft-repeated in a way that gives us a glimpse of the culture that creates these specific examples of Icelandic ways that somehow connects with so many beyond their island nation.
Af góðu upphafi vonast góður endir.
- Translation: A good beginning makes a good ending.
Anything worth seeing through to the end had better start somewhere, preferably in a strong, direct, and reliable fashion. Particular to Icelandic tradition, as the above proverb states, the beginning portends the end and if there is the slightest wavering of intent or ability to create a solid point to start out from then the destination becomes slightly lessened. In the country’s art forms we see this displayed in the fitful swells that form from humble yet solid roots.
On the latest offering from Iceland’s Solstafir, Berdreyminn, we are treated to a near perfect charting of this personality. Since 1995, this veteran band have provided a heavy, doom-rock laden treatment of a sound that churns out expansively distorted takes on Pink Floyd-adjacent material with Aðalbjörn “Addi” Tryggvason providing the wail over top of all the power. A simple horn and a guitar tone hinting at Bauhaus signals the point of departure for an expressive journey through this band’s sound, ever-rooted in the classical sense of hard rock with a rich dollop of Scandinavian humor, understated though it may be.
Eftir því sem gamlir fuglar sungu, kvökuðu þeir ungu.
- Translation: As the old birds sing, so do the young ones tweet.
Such humor is on display with the band’s opening track title, “Silfur-Refur” (roughly “Silver-fox”) recalling this particular proverb. That the band have been plying their particular brand of trance inducing post-rock, metal, Pink Floyd hybrid since 1995, acknowledging the passage of time with what might be a tongue-in-cheek reference here (i.e. “a handsome gray-haired man”) seems apropos but the sonic attack featured here is anything but aged.
They capably demonstrate an updated understanding of the power of hard rock in the second track, “Isafold”, as well by way of putting Blue Oyster Cult-esque lead guitar lines into a blender with a downbeat agony in the vocals reminiscent of Rammstein whose influence pops up again later on this album. The strength in these plaintive vocals is downright intriguing and invigorating so that the song itself does not suffer from the repetition inherent to the style. Counterpointing the guitar lines stylistically this way lends the kind of depth in layers that makes the album, as a whole, a worthwhile repeat listen.
Kemst þó hægt fari.
- Translation: You will reach your destination even though you travel slowly.
If there were any proverb to sum up what this band is up to here this would be it as both “Hula” and “Hvít Sæng” are examples of how a band can stretch themselves over a large aural canvas achieving the epic, ethereal nature of what we’ve come to expect from heavier Scandinavian music and which, as noted above, tends to make its presence felt particularly strongly in the echoes reverberating from the island. The latter track features a sparse arrangement of light percussion, ponderous piano, and a plaintive vocal line that explodes into life around the 3:00 minute mark with a locomotive of a riff, charging across this Icelandic soundscape. The former is a plodding contemplation driven by a huge sounding string section being propelled along by one of the heaviest piano riffs on offer in recent years.
Aldrei er góð vísa of oft kveðin.
- Translation: Never is a good verse too often said.
The way the vocals work on this album runs almost counter to what we’ve come to be content with on more ponderous heavy albums where those lines are often buried beneath the sturm und drang of colossal guitar riffs and thunderous basslines backed up by a crushing thump from the drums. The resulting doom-prog combination inherent throughout a track like “Naros”, which has a very pronounced mid-tempo Rammstein (there’s that band again) vibe, works precisely because Tryggvason’s vocals carry the song through its various stages allowing the rest of the band to lay that firm foundation from which to launch another epic assault.
Sjaldan er ein báran stök.
- Tranlsation: There seldom is a single wave.
If anything this band’s sound, indeed it’s effect on a listener, can be summed up in this proverb which harkens to the legacy of the sea which Icelanders draw much from. The epic “Dyrafjördur” lives up in stature to its namesake — one of Iceland’s most notable and beautiful fjords — over the course of seven-plus minutes of glacial riffs building on top of one another, pausing in moments as if to take another breath before rising to the track’s summit. As the song reaches it’s highest peaks it is as if one can take in a fuller view of the vastness this album lays out. But as with anything with this level of build, it means we are left with only one direction to go, with the track signaling the pending descent of Berdreyminn.
The moment of truth arrives for Solstafir in how they arrive at their destination; slowly and painstakingly built towards it, will there be a payoff worthy of the voyage? Many bands pay lip service to the creation of a successful song cycle over the course of an album but seldom do we see bands achieve the feat with such attention to intention as becomes evident here. Closing tandem, “Ambátt” and “Bláfjall”, bring us to the end of this trip with the dual exhaustion and invigoration that can only come from an immense undertaking. The former crashing down like an avalanche, the latter serving as a mad dash, if mid-tempo, organ-driven hard rock, towards the finish line that has finally come into sight. That Solstafir have created something that sounds this fresh, lively, and energetic over the course of these eight tracks after 22 years in the game hints at a longevity, through a stoic insistence on self-reliance, that would make any Icelander proud and any heavy rock fan engrossed in the traversing of this distance with the band.