Sólstafir is a band I feel like I should be way more into than I am. I have their last two albums, 2014s Ótta and 2011s Svartir Sandar, and while I enjoyed both, neither managed to grab hold of me and make it into regular rotation. Many of my Icelandophile-music friends are huge fans of the band, but much like my ambivalence towards The Sugarcubes for whatever reason I seem to have missed the boat. But Berdreyminn is new and fan forums indicate the band’s sound has changed, so I’m interested to see what they’re doing differently. I’m also curious how much of this is related to the 2015 firing of founding member and drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason, which he has chronicled online; has the loss of their drummer impact how the band writes its songs and their overall sound? I don’t know… but let’s drop the needle and let the music speak for itself.
There are at least a few things about Berdreyminn that fit the traditional Sólstafir model. The songs are all very long – of the eight tracks only two clock in at under seven minutes, and one of those two is only six seconds shy (“Ísafold” is a radio-friendly 4:58). Due to the length the vinyl comes as a double album, just as their previous two releases did, and our friends at Season of the Mist seem to have put it out in just about every color combination possible, all in limited editions. These days I’m not a completest like I was in my younger years (thankfully), when such a number of different versions would have driven me completely insane. The copy I’m reviewing is the “clear black marbled” edition of 800.
It didn’t take long to start to understand why some of the band’s fans were disappointed with Berdreyminn, because it does feel like a change of pace from their previous works. The A side tracks “Silfur-Refur” and “Ísafold” don’t have the sheer gloomy weight of their predecessors, instead moving in a more approachable (i.e. the dreaded “mainstream”) direction. However, as a non-superfan myself, I find these songs interesting and, dare I say it, even a bit catchy. It took a moment to get over the surprise of “Ísafold”‘s synthesizer opening, and much of its guitar work is reminiscent of something I can’t quite put my finger on, but as a complete package it holds up, giving us some of Sólstafir’s trademark intricacy and the familiar anguished vocals, just with a bit less intensity. Moving to the B side, “Hula” reminds me of their earlier stuff with the use of piano and almost operatic vocals, but once again it doesn’t carry the same sheer mass and desperation that framed Ótta. While the emotional power of their last album held a certain artistic appeal, at times it could be a bit overwhelming to my ears; so while others may find “Hula” a bit “watered-down” it has the right amount of intensity for me. The C side opener “Hvít Sæng” is probably the closest Sólstafir to the density of their last couple of albums, though more so in terms of mood than pure raw power. “Bláfjall” orbits this same space, bringing more aggression and drive than any other part of the album.
Berdreyminn may prove to be a good introduction to Sólstafir, giving the new listener something more approachable and serving as a gateway drug into their heavier material.
– Jeff Obermeyer