Sólstafir

support Nordic Giants
author AP date 04/02/15 venue Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN

It's freezing outside when I arrive at Pumpehuset, a biting, humid kind of cold that seems unique to Denmark. But it's the perfect weather for the ration of melancholy that Iceland's most successful metal band is preparing to serve to us tonight, accompanied by the enigmatic Nordic Giants. Despite the midweek slot, there's plenty of people in attendance even for the support act, though it must be said that to my surprise, the evening never nears sold out for the downstairs area of the venue despite the obvious credentials of the headliner. Oh well, don't need a crowd to dig it, let's see how it all went down...

All photos courtesy of Peter Troest

Nordic Giants

”This, this is something else”, is the predominant thought floating inside my skull as I behold the spectacle that is the dramatic post-rock double act Nordic Giants. Indeed, they’re of a rare breed of bands I’ve had the pleasure to watch that are instantly unforgettable, their show lifting the concept of an audiovisual experience to another level. With just two members, known only by their pseudonyms Loki and Roka Skuld and dressed as what can only be described as avian deities, the volume, clarity and depth of the Nordic Giants’ music is astounding, and while the formula is not novel per se (Loki typically initiates a track with melancholy keys or synth, and it then gradually evolves into a monolithic crescendo as Roka introduces bowed guitar and atavistic drumming), the live execution is near flawless. There is a vertically placed LED monitor between the two musicians, who face each other with their flanks to the audience, and a larger projector canvas behind; used for displaying short films - both animated and live action, and often thoroughly disturbing - created by external directors specifically for Nordic Giants’ songs, as well as digital representations of contributing vocalists who feature in a number of the tracks.

The lighting is murky, yet atmospheric, with the measured deployment of frenetic strobe lights all serving to whip up a cinematic, and at times cacophonous atmosphere to accompany songs like “Little Bird” (guest vocals from Alyusha on that one) and “The Seed” (with singing by Jake Reid). The audience around me seems as aghast as myself, staring wide-eyed at the magnificence of these proceedings and applauding enthusiastically when there is a brief halt in the band’s pre-programmed 45-minute set to do so. The show is unlike any other I’ve seen, the synchronisation of the visual effects with the music, and just the grandeur of it all drawing a surprising parallel to Meshuggah’s live performances. When the opportunity presents itself again to see the duo live, I’ll be at the helm of the queue to get in - as should anyone with even the slightest interest in the post-rock genre. Lavish and entrancing, this is how to do a show.

Sólstafir

As they take the stage, Sólstafir strike me immediately as looking a little worn out (fatigue from touring, perhaps?), with dark sacks beneath vocalist/guitarist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason's eyes and complexions that suggest they've been living a hard life on the road recently, promoting their latest album "Ótta". The stage setup is strikingly barren in the wake of Nordic Giant's elaborate production just before, but this matters little; in fact, it complements the sullen nature of Sólstafir's music well. These four gentlemen deal in melancholy, using the landscapes and atmosphere of their native Iceland as inspiration for their cold, epic music, and indeed there are moments in their 10-song set, such as the first song proper "Köld" (the epic title track to Sólstafir's 2009 masterpiece), which tempt me to jot down that I imagine volcanoes erupting, glaciers rupturing and gales whipping the sea against rocky shores as I listen to it.

A colleague of mine in attendance agrees: this is entrancing stuff. Sólstafir may not have what you would call an explosive stage presence, but especially as the set progresses into "Djàkninn" and "Svartir Sandar" (both off the group's 2011 album for which the latter pick is the namesake) near the end, there's so much passion flowing through the slow, but deliberate movements of Tryggvason and his colleagues, guitarist Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson, bassist Svavar Austman & drummer Guðmundur Óli Pálmason. You can feel the emotion, the agony that has gone into putting these songs together. The best way to appreciate it often, is to shut one's eyes and breathe it in, devouring the enormity of Sólstafir's soundscape, and the texture to which it plays host. Still, as "Fjara" and finally "Goddess of the Ages" conclude the concert in convincing style, I find myself thinking if Sólstafir's music wouldn't also benefit from the projection of, for example, footage filmed in Iceland or some other barren terrain.

Many of the band's songs are characterised by lengthy doom ridden instrumental passages to which would undoubtedly be heightened by such visuals. They work on record where their purpose is clearly defined, but it seems to me that in a concert setting, where songs are drawn from multiple albums that don't always have thematic or sonic unity, they sometimes cause lulls that seem to last forever before one of the group's signature bombastic crescendos arrives to resolve things. Mind you, this is but a personal preference, and it is difficult to fault Sólstafir for their choice of letting their music speak for itself - especially as they resonate such emotion. Sæþórsson's swaying movements and strums of his six strings have an elegance to them that's thoroughly fixating, as if the guitar performs the role of a conduit for his soul; while the beaten appearance of Tryggvason is so appropriate amidst the desolation of Sólstafir's music. And tired though he may look, the customary power and range of his voice does not suffer in the slightest.

Sólstafir's performance tonight is expectedly solid then, even if it lacks the majesty that the music deserves. Songs like "Pale Rider", "Love is the Devil (and I am in Love)" and "Ritual of Fire" would have been welcome additions to the setlist also, though understandably room needed to be made for airing the loftier new stuff - and in the end, with four rockers playing their heart out, what more can you ask?

Setlist:

  • 1. Náttfari
  • 2. Köld
  • 3. Lágnætti
  • 4. Rismál
  • 5. Ótta
  • 6. Dagmál
  • 7. Djákninn
  • 8. Svartir Sandar
  • 9. Fjara
  • 10. Goddess of the Ages

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