With Ótta, Iceland’s Sólstafir have steered their ship closer to the rocky shores sighted on previous albums. Most of the remaining black metal sounds have been cleared from the deck, and a hard rock wind blows in the sails. Inevitably, the “post metal” label has been bandied around.
“Post rock” and “post metal” are used these days to describe any metal band that veers into epic-length songs, prog rock melodicism or hazy atmospherics, but they are limiting terms that are used to lazily praise or dismiss bands that attempt a achieve a certain musical grandeur outside the scope of sheer heaviness. Sólstafir have evolved into an atmospheric hard rock band with epic songs and broad appeal (both of which they always had), which leads to the old post-rock/metal discussion, the old question of what exactly they are, as if entering or exiting the storied halls of metal actually means anything. A more pertinent, and for our purposes, relevant, question is: does the latest album rock? And the two-word answer is: fuck yes.
The basic Sólstafir sound is intact, with long, lumbering mid-tempo marches that bring to mind the wide-open vistas of the American Southwest as much as the empty volcanic expanses of Iceland, a Viking-cowboy-on-the-range sort of mood, desolate, melancholic and eerily beautiful in its emptiness. These sections are sparser than on previous records, trading heaviness for a dusty haziness of guitar feedback, sometimes allowed to just float off into noisy reveries unassisted by an emphatic beat—these moments are eerie and powerful, and not reducible to the generic “post metal” signposts. But as always, the best songs eschew the desert drift in favor of propulsive, hard-driving rock music, with galloping beats and catchy, country-inflected riffs that have as much in common with Fields of Nephilim as black metal.
The vocals of Addi Tryggvason have improved significantly from the days when he yell-screamed and shrieked over oatmeal-thick riffs—he still has a powerful, throaty mid-range, but his voice is steadier and clearer in the fast parts, and melodically haunting in the slower, quieter moments. He has become a confident front man, an impression that was reinforced when I saw them perform the new material live in Seattle. His vocal performance has become a focal point as the overall music has become lighter, more introspective, and more prone to fits of spacious headiness. The presence of a piano and banjo also complement this richer, more patient approach, both used sparingly throughout the album.
Ótta may be less ferociously metallic than previous albums, but it’s the most fully realized summation of the band’s idiosyncratic and utterly peerless sound, their balancing act between forlorn moodiness and careworn beauty. It offers up evanescent “changing of the light” moments of perfection that are blown out to sea by billowing riffs, all the while avoiding the preciousness that sometimes wanders into songs of other atmospheric rock bands—there is none of the precocious cooing and baby talk you might find on a Sigur Ros album. With Sólstafir, there is always thunder, and giant riffs, on the horizon. The moments of rugged beauty of Ótta always feel hard-earned, like a unique geological feature carved out of a ridge by wind and rain over hundreds of years.
“Post-metal” is too prosaic a term for rock music this singular.
01 – Lágnætti (Midnight)
02 – Ótta
03 – Rismál
04 – Dagmál
05 – Miðdegi
06 – Nón
07 – Miðaftann
08 – Náttmál