The Icelandic cowboys of dark rock, Sólstafir, are back with 6th full length album; ‘Berdreyminn’. I’m not going to tediously go into the band’s long history and how they have progressed to get here, quite honestly if you’re unfamiliar with them you should make rectifying that a far greater priority than reading any reviews of this particular album.
In many ways, the often innovative quartet have actually remained in a similar sonic place to that which they created with the masterful ‘Ótta’. There are very few metal elements to speak of, everything is much more open and the individual instruments have plenty of space to express themselves, sprawling out into massive aural landscapes that exude feelings both of corporeal sorrow and a more spiritual connection to nature. There are some subtle differences musically speaking, mostly in situations where synths and additional production nuances come into play, but there is also the matter of the new permanent drummer, Hallgrímur Jón Hallgrímsson, who provides occasional backing vocals and a not particularly noteworthy performance that does nevertheless fit easily into the required style.
The album starts subdued, but the moment Aðalbjörn Tryggvason’s uniquely emotive and powerful voice arrive I suddenly feel right at home. Sólstafir are one of those bands that are impossible to replicate, and that is in large part down to the completely unrivalled vocals. It matters not whether you understand any Icelandic, this is a perfect example of how magnificently feeling can be communicated and expressed through song.
Unfortunately, after the good energy from the opening piece, something happens which I am still finding very confusing and difficult to come to terms with. Track by track goes by and I find myself genuinely bored, which personally seems unimaginable when thinking of Sólstafir. The songs seem to drag on, the melodies seem slightly dull in places, there are questionable key changes, and altogether I found very little that was memorable. During ‘Ísafold’ I even wondered to myself if I’d perhaps heard similar music on one of those horrible preset demo buttons you sometimes find on a cheap keyboard. I’m at a bit of a loss trying to properly explain these thoughts, because I was so surprised to have had them. Something is lacking, it might be that the music has become too stripped back to the point which there is very little left? Where there used to be simplistic yet soul-stirringly beautiful guitar hooks that built up in such magnificent splendour there is now merely tired and repeated melodies that have yet to reach me beyond the physical.
After repeated listens, I have found minimal reason to change my initial impressions. However, I do still need to express that this by no means a horrific album that should go completely unlistened, it is purely that I am comparing it alongside their past releases which I have considered to be utter masterpieces of an entirely unique genre. The whole atmosphere and aesthetic of the band is still something to soak up and enjoy, and is something they still do better than most who might attempt it. There is also some reward at the end, with ‘Bláfjall’ being reminiscent of the energy and feeling I found in the opener; ‘Silfur-refur’. Being book-ended with the best moments of the entire hour, I still wonder if in time I will find better context for the passages between, and enjoyment throughout.
Am I judging ‘Berdreyminn’ too much in the monumental shadow that is cast by ‘Ótta’? Possibly. Will the new material grow on me relentlessly and find it’s way into my heart through the sheer power of a Sólstafir live performance? Probably. But for now, I can’t shake this feeling of disappointment.