Review of Svartir Sandar by Sólstafir

Band: Sólstafir
Album: Svartir Sandar
Release Date: 14 October 2011
Record Label: Season Of Mist
Performing at Maryland Deathfest XII: 5:55pm Friday at Edison Lot A

Cover of Svartir Sandar by Sólstafir

Here’s our third review in our series of album reviews leading up to Maryland Deathfest XII. These reviews are intended to help you get familiar with some of the bands you might not know about, but definitely don’t want to miss seeing, at this year’s Deathfest. They’re more than just album reviews though as they also shed some info on the band’s history and background. So enjoy this post about Sólstafir before they play both MDF and Empire in the coming week. This post was written by Tal and you can read more of her writing on her personal blog here. Be sure to stream the tunes at the end of this post too!

I was asked to write about “relatively unknown” bands playing Maryland Deathfest XII, but Sólstafir is actually not that unknown… unless you live on our side of the Atlantic Ocean. The band climbed the charts in Europe with their 2011 album Svartir Sandar, and “Fjara,” the single from that album, actually made it to #1 on the singles charts in Iceland, their home country. They’ve never appeared in the US before, though, and are still rather underground here.

Sólstafir’s sound is as if Sigur Rós (an Icelandic post-rock band) decided to play black metal, and threw in some chugging stoner riffs too, without abandoning haunting instrumental passages and the occasional dreamy vocals. The band itself defies any attempt to categorize, calling themselves “Epic Rock N Roll” and “New Wave Metal” (according to their Facebook page). They include Abba and Thin Lizzy among their musical favorites, and can often be seen sporting cowboy hats and boots.

The band was formed by Aðalbjörn Tryggvason (guitar and vocals), Halldór Einarsson (bass) and Guðmundur Óli Pálmason (drums) in 1995 and recorded two demos that year; one of them, Till Valhallar, was later re-released in 2002. Halldór left before the recording of the band’s debut album and was replaced by Svavar Austmann on bass. Although recording of their debut album Í Blóði og Anda started in 1999, the album wasn’t released until 2002; there were so many difficulties that the band “truly believed they were cursed” – everything from a break-in at the studio to 90% of their CDs being shattered in a car crash on the German Autobahn (source). Around the same time they recruited a second guitar player, Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson, to join them as they started playing live shows.

Their 2011 release Svartir Sandar met with critical acclaim in Europe. Svartir Sandar, which means “black sands,” is a double album of otherworldly guitars; hoarse, anguished vocals; and the occasional plunge into black metal fury or chugging riffage. One of the most distinctive aspects of the album is the vocals, which range from soft, ethereal singing to heartbroken screaming, as though through sobs – it’s a very emotional, stormy listen. Their guitar tone is also unique – although it’s sometimes very distorted, much of the time it’s quite clear and raw-sounding.

The first part of the album, subtitled Andvari, is a post-metal journey through soundscapes of loneliness, with layers of long, resonating guitar notes leading into heavier, riffier segments. I really adore the first track, “Ljós í Stormi” (“Light in the Storm”), from the sweeping, desolate guitar notes that start it off, to the distraught vocals, the barrage of drumming and the dreamy, uplifting guitars that rise through the storm like the name suggests. “Fjara” is another obvious favorite, with its catchy vocal melody that draws the listener from quiet grief into intense anguish, accompanied by flowing guitar and piano, with just a hint of discord giving them depth. If you really want to experience heartbreak, watch the video for the song at the end of this post.

The second part of the album, subtitled Gola, is quieter, with a more consistent rock rhythm and dreamy guitar passages, giving it more of a prog rock feel. My favorite piece is “Stormfari” (“Storm Wanderer”) not the least because it samples an Icelandic weather report (which starts in its intro, “Stinningskaldi” [“Strong Wind”]). I can’t understand more than that it seems to be talking about storms over the sea, but, accompanied by whirring electronic sounds and then dramatic guitar, it sets a mood of just barely contained danger for the song. Then the song launches into rocking, heavily distorted riffs and hoarse vocals that continue the sense of a building storm, before ending just as quickly as an August thunderstorm with a moment of atmospheric melody and a final distant crash. It’s the shortest song on the second half of Svartir Sandar; most of the others are 8 to 10 minute explorations of desolation and melancholy, though not without lovely atmospheric guitar, choirs and some softer vocals giving them a sense of light as well.

In 2013, Sólstafir re-released their debut album, Í Blóði Og Anda (In Blood and Spirit, originally released in 2002). Going from Svartir Sandar to Í Blóði Og Anda, it feels like an entirely different band – faster, harsher, with angrier vocals – but if you listen closely, you can hear the atmospheric soundscapes and prog/post-metal leanings in there as well. Behind the punkish screams that dominate most of the album, the frenzies of blast beats, fuzzy black metal guitar tone and moments so distorted they sound like white noise, there are long waves of atmospheric guitar or lovely acoustic guitar or piano interludes. Even back in 2002, the band seems to have displayed their unwillingness to be restricted to any one genre – one of the most accessible songs on the album, “Bitch in Black,” wanders from a gothic beginning with clean vocals (done by guest vocalist Kola Krauze of Dark Heresy) that drip heavy-mascara darkness, to tremolo-y black metal guitar work, to rocking riffs disguised in black metal techniques, followed by grotesque growled vocals, and then back again. Fortunately for us, Sólstafir can’t seem to make a simple song or stick to one genre.

Sólstafir will generally throw in enough groovy riffs and lovely melodies, too, for there to be something appealing for almost any metal head. For the stoner metal aficionados, check out “Love is the Devil” but prepare to be possibly disturbed by the video. For those who want aching proggy soundscapes check out “Fjara.” And for something of a mix, try these three tracks from Gola – the dreamy “Draumfari,” which makes me think of flying through clouds, plus the raging storm of “Stinningskaldi” and “Stormfari.” And if that’s not enough, you can even listen to Sólstafir on Bandcamp.

In late May, Sólstafir will swing through the area on their first North American tour before heading to the European summer festival circuit. They’ll actually make two stops in our area, so even if you aren’t headed to Deathfest, you can catch them at Empire in Springfield, Virginia on May 19 (with Junius from Boston opening for them). If you are headed to Deathfest, check Sólstafir out at 5:55pm on Friday on the outdoor Edison Lot stage A for a taste of their atmospheric wanderings and rock ‘n’ roll groove.

Oh, and if you really have to know, Sólstafir means “crepuscular rays” in Icelandic – you know, those rays of sunlight that sometimes seem to radiate through the clouds.

Fjara:

Stormfari:

Pale Rider (live):

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