Solstafir - Otta (2014)

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Heavy music isn't an absolute. There is no scale that tells you if the album you've made or heard is heavy enough to be called metal. In fact, the entire idea has become archaic and outdated. Would Black Sabbath be considered heavy by today's standards, or would they be lumped into the rock category? We focus too much on double kick drums, rattling bass lines and distortion to truly appreciate what makes our favorite music heavy, in it's own right. And every now and then, we need our perception changed, or rebooted. Solstafir, Iceland's pride and joy, have had many tags put on their catalog over their career, which now spans nearly twenty years. Black metal, post metal, progressive metal; the list goes on and on, and never really captures what it is that this four piece really does. But their new album, Otta, may be what comes to best define their style. It's heavy music, without the filler.

The aura of cold that surrounds much of the album is no mistake, surely, but in songs like Lagnaetti there is also tremendous warmth. It takes a nearly three minute period of sullen vocals, strings and piano to melt the outermost frost, but every note is part of a larger picture. The amalgam of all of these sounds and movements is best represented just after the five minute mark, where strings anchor cymbal crashes and a mega rock bass line. But the depth of sound, the intense focus on melody and musicianship, is only beginning. Otta boasts some of the albums most diverse instrumentation, and it's most moving passages. It feels every bit as big as it is, expanse in both it's melody and thunderous backing. By the time you hit the chanting turned scream of the latter stages, the chills have already hit the base of your spine. Vocalist/Guitarist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason wastes not a breath through the album, his soft yet jagged crooning on Rismal, partly due to the language difference, is a highlight. You hang on each word, you can almost feel the punctuation hanging in the air at times, italicized and underlined by a distorted riff.

Even when things hit a more straight forward tone, as they do on Dagmal, you never lose the sense of depth and purpose the album has built to this point. It's the subtle beauty and simplicity that bolsters this song, a simple drum beat punching through the mix. Each instrument helps to further the emotional tagline they've created. The punk undertones of Meddegi come through loud and clear in every facet of the track, from the full speed ahead bass and guitar to the wailed vocal lines. It seems to be right at home on the album, despite sharing little to nothing in common with any other song on the record. Bassist Svavar Austmann is the driving force here, his constant presence holding down the low end. The raw rock and roll sound the band utilizes has real value, despite outward appearances. Non is a rousing effort, far more intricate than the first quarter might lead you to believe. It builds itself up, only to tear itself down again and again, in favor of light organ style keys.

That ability to make tracks that have a left turn attached, without making them feel contrived and overthought is fully realized on this album. And, more importantly, the ability to do so in varying track lengths. Where Lagnaetti stewed and took time to blossom, Midaftann is half the length, with similar impact. Strings and keys form the entirety of the melody here, reaching into the upper register to find the right sound. It's a beautifully orchestrated piece with a goal of total sonic immersion. Moreover, it succeeds. What happens next, the closing track Nattmal, is every bit the pay off you'd expect and hope for. From a low level ambient noise, to full on distorted assault, it embodies all things heavy without a single guttural scream to be found. Instead, it rides a wave of tempo changes and melodic sensibilities from start to finish. It is a fusion of styles, much like the band itself, that leaves no trace of borders or boundaries. It flows in crooked lines with no so rounded corners, building transitions marked by loose snares. It would be sloppy if not for every movement somehow coming off as pinpoint accurate and dynamic.

How is it possible, logically, to call an album heavy when there are barely trace amounts of aggression or angst? Maybe it isn't the album that we need to reevaluate, but our criteria. Solstafir don't give you all of the things that would make them black metal, or death metal, or even the rigid albeit silly definition of progressive metal. But their songwriting and ability to color outside the lines of the traditional song structures makes them something that deserves real thought and repeated dissection. The heavy tag is a broad one, and isn't exclusive to one band or style. Death metal can be heavy, as can avant garde jazz. It isn't all about blast beats, power chords, and growls. With Otta, Solstafir might not be able to erase the lines between genres, but it can blur them more and more with each listen. So whatever your definition of heavy may be, from Opeth to Thelonious Monk, it may be time to readjust your perspective.


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