Review by Paul Castles, Photos by Rich Thompson
At the Damnation Festival in Leeds last November the clamour to see Solstafir made them the hottest ticket in town. Playing on the second stage at the sprawling university campus, the punters were squeezed in like commuters on the Tokyo subway with the doors closed before the Icelanders had even fired up their gear. Once underway the safety conscious staff operated a one-in one-out policy similar to that adopted by multi-story car parks the weekend before Christmas. Perhaps naively I had anticipated a similar level of excitement to welcome the bearded Scandi-quartet on their first ever visit to Birmingham. Well, it didn’t quite turn out like that.
First of all the gig was staged in the modest confines of The Temple, perched high up within the rafters of the HMV Institute. Secondly, despite the relatively modest-sized room, Solstafir incongruously failed to come even close to selling this out. Well that’s the way it goes sometimes but for those clued up punters who did turn up at the Digbeth haunt they were rewarded with a stellar performance from Solstafir, who were performing with their new drummer following the not altogether amicable departure of Gummi Palmason earlier this year.
Solstafir have been around for more than 20 years but it was their fifth album Otta that really struck a chord, both on an emotional as well as musical level, and catapulted them into a whole new sonic sphere. Quite simply one of the albums of 2014, its atmospheric and simple beauty resonated with many discerning listeners. As well as being talented musically, Solstafir also have the not inconsiderable bonus of really looking the part too, ambling on stage like desperadoes from a spaghetti western in trademark boots, hats, waistcoats and leathers.
You almost expect these dudes to sling a Smith & Wesson rifle over their shoulder rather than a lead guitar. Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson has the authoritative air of a cool gunslinger, and the guitarist could walk on to the film set of Fistful of Dollars without requiring any assistance from the costume department. Once everything was in place they opened with the dynamic ‘Dagmál’ full of delicious sonic waves that gracefully reached out into over corner of The Temple, singer Aðalbjörn Tryggvason carousing in his native tongue.
It’s then straight into ‘Otta’ the title track of their ground breaking album. Starting with near painful slowness, just a few deep dissonant drones, before very slowly the pace gathers, and an almighty carousel kicks in swooning effortlessly across a captivated audience. Mid song the drones return, shimmering and flickering before a couple of drumbeats ignite the riffs back into action, Tryggvason’s captivating cries guiding the song through to its momentous fulfilment.
After a thoroughly deserved reception the lights black out to allow Tryggvason to speak the first few lines of ‘Rismal’ unaccompanied. The fact that none of us understand a sausage about what he’s saying is almost irrelevant. Once the tortured riffs commence, the sombre melody almost tells the tale on its own.
Just when it seems nothing can stop these imperious Icelanders a small techy issue delays the start of the less familiar ‘Miðdegi’ which seems a touch pacier than most of their material. They return to Otta with ‘Lágnætti’ which has the presence to build from small beginnings into a rumbling beast, a deft touch of the cymbal echoing like a gothic church bell as the darkness descends.
Although so much of Solstafir’s music is inspiring and moving, there is no sense of pomposity and while his bandmates maintain a monastic like silence, Tryggvason, in his endearing broken English, is an engaging kind of fellow. He did though undo much of the hard work undertaken by the Icelandic Tourist Board in recent years when entertaining us with all the reasons not to visit his homeland. “Icebergs?… They’re all melting anyway!…. We have sheep, but why not just look at your own!” In reality of course the fjords, forests and great lakes are the very things that breathe life into Solstafir’s songs. Both bewilderingly and captivating, the hairs on the back of your neck will find it almost impossible not to stand to attention during moments of raw emotion.
Svavar Austmann is a vision of steel underneath his trilby and shades and few bassists could pull off that pigtails look without getting at least a few heckles. During ‘Fjara’ Tryggvason conducted the ballad in near total darkness before a shimmering turquoise glow spread across the room leaving the four band members as silhouettes on the stage. The material played that was not as familiar as the songs on Otta were every bit as enjoyable while the closing ‘Goddess of the Ages’ worked itself up into a frenzied finale as the Reykavik rebels really tore into their instruments to bring a dazzling display to a resounding conclusion.
As Tryggvason said towards the end of their set… “it’s taken Solstafir 20 years to get to Birmingham, so see you again in 2035!” Let’s hope the wait isn’t quite that long. Anyone heading up to Yorkshire in November will get the chance to catch them on their immediate return to Damnation; the first band ever to play the Leeds Uni extreme metal one-dayer two years in succession. This time round they’ll be in the main hall, so everyone who wants to should get to see them. Just a shame there weren’t a few more punters at The Temple.
9. Svartir Sandar
10. Goddess of the Ages