When approaching an album for review, I typically find it's necessary to learn a band's history. For my interactions with Sólstafir's newest, Berdreyminn, I've intentionally avoided interacting with their older works. This isn't to say I haven't heard them before, but it'd be unfair to say I recall the details of music I heard in the background while visiting with friends. The band has changed over the years, this much I know, but I'm more concerned with the details and merits of Sólstafir in 2017 than a legacy they built. It's rare that I have the opportunity to take an album at face value, so I cherish this challenge.
On a stylistic level, it's clear that Sólstafir is a metal band in much the same way Katatonia is a metal band. There's a lingering tension and tendency towards climactic shifts and crashing dynamics that seem to be culled from decades of playing heavier music, but there's little metallic about the sound of the band itself. Instead, alternating (and sometimes simultaneous) keys and piano set the backdrop for a rather limber and desperate sounding hard rock record. All the songs take on expansive formats (only one song clocks in anywhere near five minutes, the rest leaning towards seven and up), but there's a merciful avoidance of needless prog-rock interludes and pseudo-Opethian wanderings that many bands foolishly embark upon. Instead of going to places where many artists would be out of their depth, Sólstafir relies on raw emotion to carry these lengthy songs through to their ends in a way where any given track could be the first or last on an album. The completeness of each song as a statement, however, doesn't take away from the sense of the album's flow.
For all the bombast and explosive tendencies, there's ample space on Berdreyminn for vocalist Addi Tryggvason to give an impassioned, beautifully human performance with every song. On an album so flawless in its approach everywhere else, hearing such raw (but still on-key and tasteful) singing is refreshing. Many albums of this ilk would be filled with sterile, "perfect" singing with little variation. On the one-two punch of "Ísafold" and "Hula," we see throaty and urgent rock giving way to an ambient masterpiece of cinematic proportions, although labeling either song as a highlight feels unfair on an album in which every song is memorable. In a way, the freedom of exploration on Berdreyminn strikes me as a luxury lost on most rock bands of the last twenty years. Sólstafir appears to be at a place where they have the budget and support to really craft something amazing but lack the pressure to perform that larger bands face.
The only point of confusion I find with this record is more in its marketing and discussion in public than the record itself. While there are comments of psychedelia being made left and right, this feels far too earthen and grounded to be psychedelic in any way. Is it imaginative and daring? Without a doubt. Does it call to mind any classic psych rock? Not really. I feel there's simply a spirit of creativity and passion that is often absent in rock music that is being harnessed in full here and given a touch or two of heavy metal's raucous nature.
To be fair, much of the weight and strength of Berdreyminn lies in just how connected this is. If Sólstafir got lost in space somewhere along the way, much of this album's ability to imprint itself on the listener would be lost along with the band. Ultimately, this is an album that's made a quick convert of me in a genre where I rarely dabble outside of my usual suspects. It'll be interesting to explore their back catalog with this as my point of entry. I can only hope the soul displayed here is a continuation of something they've held all along.
PR for this album was handled by Season of Mist, the label responsible for its release.