Monday, November 1, 2010

Spotlight & Review: Sólstafir - Masterpiece of Bitterness (2005, Spikefarm)

Sólstafir - Band name explanation by guitarist and vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason:
"Crepuscular rays. Alternating light and dark bands of light (rays and shadows) that appear to fan out from the sun's position; usually occur around sunrise and sunset, also when the sun shines through breaks in clouds."

Background - The Icelandic cowboys

Sólstafir is from Iceland and came to existence around 1994, but there is no exact known date.
As drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason recalls he was asked by guitarist and vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason (or Addi as he's called) to join the band in December 1994. However, he says, the first rehearsal wasn't until January 1995. At that time they were a trio, with Halldór Einarsson on bass. They composed several songs from basic riffs that Addi and Halldór wrote and played in other formations in 1993/4, and also wrote new tracks as well. In 1998 bassist Halldór had left the band and was replaced by Svavar Austmann. The other guitarist, Sæþór M. Sæþórsson joined only in 1999, for their live shows. The fours guys (Addi, Sæþór, Halldór and Guðmundur) knew each other from childhood.

In 1995 the band released a demo tape "Í Norðri". Then they recorded the demo "Til Valhallar" which was never officially released. However, four of the six songs in that demo were released as a MCD by View Beyond Records. In 1997 and 1998 they recorded two promotional tapes. It was not until 1999 that they started recording their full length debut album called "Í Blóði og Anda". Its release was delayed time and time again and was only released in 2002 by the German label Ars Metalli. Unfortunately the label closed soon after the album's release and so the CD soon became a rarity and did not get proper promotion. February 2002 sees the band recording five songs for Black Death: The Demo. But this was never officially released but three of the songs were released as Black Death: The EP by the German labels Ketzer Rec and Neodawn Prod. "Til valhallar" was re-mastered and re-released with all six tracks, a colour cover and comments for all the songs, by Russian Oskorei production in 2003. This was followed by the re-release of "Í Blóði og Anda" in 2004 by the same label. February 2004 is when the band started recording "Masterpiece Of Bitterness". Three songs from this album were released as a promo in the summer of that year, even before the recordings were finished. It is this deal that lead the way to the record deal with the lable Spikefarm which released "Masterpiece Of Bitterness" in December 2005 to rave reviews of metal fans and magazines world-wide.
 Until "Masterpiece Of Bitterness" Aðalbjörn composed all the music and he and Guðmundur did together the arrangements. This album, however, was a band effort. They either wrote the albums together or arranged them together. It is still Aðalbjörn that writes most of the music. He usually plays some ideas at home with his guitar (Fender Stratocaster) and then the band and him arrange everything into a coherent song. After the track has a full structure he writes the lyrics.

The band started its way rooted in black metal, but have since gone a long way from that field of metal. "Masterpiece Of Bitterness" is mostly composed of long tracks, in which the band sets the ground for heavy riffing textures, screams by the vocalist, and powerful displays of drumming. Some parts of several tracks have a repetitive pattern in which they linger to create a somewhat of a hypnotic effect, that captures the listener and drive him through their visions (of light mostly, as this motif keeps popping up in this album). The songs are mostly fast, but there are occasions in which a slower pace kicks in, creating the needed effect. In tracks like "Bloodsoaked Velvet" you can hear their black metal origins coming through, and being mingled with their current approach to metal. This could be called drone or sludge, unless it was this fast. Comparisons have been made to Neurosis, Cult Of Luna, Pelican or Isis but in high speed. However, the band members say that they are not trying to be like those bands, or don't like them in particular.

Sólstafir have shown great progress in their sound since their inception and have now evolved to a special sound that is quite unique to them (although similarities can be found, as in most cases). "Masterpiece Of Bitterness" presents a special blend of fast and energetic form of heavy riff metal (which originates in black metal) to the mesmerizing and almost hypnotic shrouds of sound ("I Myself The Visionary Head" and "Ghosts Of Light" ). It will be very interesting to listen to their follow up album and see where they have evolved to. 

Review of the album:Masterpiece Of Bitterness

Psychedelic brutality

Heavy, aggressive, raw, angry, dark, repetitive, hypnotic, mesmerizing, psychedelic… Bitter?
All of these words can serve as good descriptions for the music that Solstafir plays on this album.

Sólstafir is an Icelandic band that was created in 1994 and went through several phases and demo, promo and EP releases up to the point of releasing their first full-length in 2002 and this one, their second, in 2005. Sólstafir provides a listening experience that’s based on mood, power and “tripping out” with the music and not on technical playing, complexity or virtuosity.

Made up of 7 songs, mostly long, with the opener being almost 20 minutes, this album can be exhausting (in a good way) and one needs to be in a proper mood to absorb its entire 70 minutes. The length, however, doesn’t mean the songs harbor diversity or are complex epics; rather it should tell you of their inclination to create lengthy metallic freakout. At times it sounds like long repetitive and endless jams. That is, they go on for quite a while in their hypnotic riffing (which can be either slow or fast), and thus create a particular mood that can serve as a good companion to chill out or float away with your thoughts; that is until Aðalbjörn Tryggvason, the vocalist, resumes his screams. The vocals are mostly harsh screaming which to me seem to fit the music quite well, although at times can be too much or out of place; they complete very well the feel of the music and add to the intensity level.

The thing is that when they’re jamming or more accurately in their trance mode, it can be a bit tedious and too long; but when they garner up speed and energy, it’s fabulous. Their dynamic side is impossible for me to ignore or let go by unnoticed; it’s too thrilling and catchy and makes me shake my head or legs. Add to that the heaviness of their music and it can be a crushing experience. The guitars come crumbling down on my ears unmercifully and raw sounding, enhanced by the aforementioned vocals and with the blasting drums, one gets an ear a “devastating” listening experience.
There are songs like Ljósfari, which have a haunting catchy melodic peak (yes, melodic). Those are great moments in the album, though not found often enough in my opinion.

A Masterpiece Of Bitterness is an angry album; it’s heavy and raw. It’s a great album to let loose your energies with. It’s powerful and can be almost hypnotic in the parts where they play those ongoing riffs continuously. It’s an effective and well made metal release but not an outstanding one. I do enjoy listening to it but there are some flaws as I mentioned in the review that prevent me from enjoying it more, such as some over-repetitiveness.
I also think they should introduce more variety into their songs; there are places where I feel they could have gone further on and develop the theme or idea more and make the song more interesting and thus even more compelling to listen to.

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