Once upon a night, I discovered the brilliance of this album. There is a soulful, nostalgic feeling to it. A feeling of reaching back to one’s origins.
Sólstafir is an Icelandic band. Their name means crepuscular rays in Icelandic, referring to those rays of sunlight piercing through dark clouds that you often see near dusk. Ótta is an album revolving around an old Icelandic system of timekeeping called Eykt, a monastic system that divided the day into eight parts of three hours each. Accordingly, there are eight songs on the album, one to represent each eyktar. It starts at midnight with the opening track, Lágnætti (low night). Ótta, the second track, refers to the time between 3-6 a.m.
The cover is a black and white photo of an old man with white hair. He’s positioned on the left side of the photo, and behind him is the sea, with big rocks jutting out of the shore, shrouded in mist. The wind sweeps the man’s hair to the left as he looks in that direction. His face is somewhat haggard. It bears the creases of time. His expression is quite unreadable. He’s wearing black, nondescript clothing. He could be from any time. The photo well conveys the timeless feeling of this album. It speaks of a connection between a particular kind of landscape and the person who belongs there.
The vocalist has a strong presence in all the songs, his raspy voice often belting forth Icelandic like a driving wind. Or, I imagine that maybe he is shouting into the wind in order to be heard, using the force of both wind and voice to direct the music that accompanies him. Icelandic being a Germanic language of a Nordic flavor, it has that ancient feeling that hearkens back to the Vikings. Language has always intrigued me for being intertwined with the culture and history of a place. The sound of a language, the words themselves but also their intonation, convey a feeling of the geography and character of the land. Iceland is a land of mystery to me, to which this album lends further mystery, and invites one to feel and hear its nature through the elements. For this reason, without having to understand the words being spoken, Sólstafir’s music is powerful in providing an Icelandic immersion.
While the vocals tend to drive the songs at their most energetic points, they don’t epitomize the album. Long instrumental interludes also occur. The album opens gently with piano and violin (or strings of similar nature). Elsewhere, later, a banjo enters. These stringed instruments come back again and again throughout the album to twine beautifully with the guitars, drums and vocals. There are time changes that rise and fall like tides. Times of noise and wind and rain, then quiet times of contemplation and reflection. These moods transition naturally. There is a consistent energy that builds and subsides, always seeming to flow from the same source. The drums and guitars will often interrupt a slow intro with a strong and steady tremolo rhythm, gathering momentum to launch brilliant crescendos that eventually wane back into silence.
The atmosphere created on this album is impeccable. A folk feeling is conjured by the banjo. Heavily distorted guitar paired with the distant crashing of a cymbal routinely combine to create a misty atmosphere, thanks to the delicate handling of the production. Violin or keyboard melodies ease through the fog to lend soul, sincerity and longing. A beautiful combination.
On Rismál, the drums shine and twinkle through a white fog of distortion, calling on the organic sound of a tambourine to accent the cymbal. If the twinkling were sunlight, it might lend meaning to the title, which means sunrise. There is an awesome part in Nón (noon) where a knife-edged lead guitar rises up out of the sea and dances for an instant with the ghost of heavy metal.
Ótta shines like the burning flame of an old candle that refuses to die. Through the timeless veil of wind and fog and sea, it reminisces of a time forgotten. It’s humble and heartfelt, almost balladic. It’s an ode to the heartland and the homeland. An offering.